Kells and his family became "Library Tourists" to research this history of the spaces dedicated to the collection and preservation of books, which spans from the ancient Great Library of Alexandria through contemporary archives and the bibliophiles who tend to them.
In this free-roaming history of libraries, Kells, well read, well traveled, ebullient, and erudite, relishes tales of innovation, obsession, and criminality ... scintillating, often irreverant ... Kells’ revelatory romp through the centuries cues us to the fact that, as has so often been the case, libraries need our passionate attention and support, our advocacy, gratitude, and (given Kells’ tales of book-kissing, including Coleridge pressing his lips to his copy of Spinoza) love.
As the subtitle of Kell[s]’s survey suggests, the structure imitates that of a catalog or collection, one that includes many pamphlet-length treats ... The Library lends itself to browsing, but a sequential reading reveals a larger theme ... We are reminded of the frequency with which certain kinds of texts have been prohibited, if not destroyed, on religious, political or moral grounds; libraries have often not just protected their holdings, but kept them from everyday readers ... The Library abounds in fascinating tales of lost codices and found manuscripts, and the sometimes unscrupulous schemes by which people have conspired to obtain or amass valuable volumes. All this attention to private collections and ownership only underscores the importance of availability and access, and hints at the challenges faced by libraries now functioning in both physical and digital modes.
Their [libraries'] history, as Kells finds out, holds intriguing stories 'of every possible human drama' ... With a claim so invigorating, Kells sets a high bar for his work and high expectations in his reader. To his credit, the book delivers on this promise in a number of places ... Elsewhere, however, the chapters do start to take on something of a catalogue’s dry accounting. A high turnover of facts, trivia, and brick-and-mortar details end up deflating some of the book’s allure, however informative those details may be ... As The Library speeds through the centuries and catches up to our contemporary era, a snapshot quality begins to take over. Certain morsels will delight and educate ... Others may prove interesting only to the most diehard of library enthusiasts ... Which is not to say that the book runs out of interesting material ... Kells succeeds not by transforming libraries into places of great lore and intrigue, but by honoring these venerable institutions that the internet has yet to kill.