The Library at Night

The Library at Night. Alberto Manguel. Yale University Press, 2008.

Review by S. E. Weissman

Alberto Manguel is an author, book collector and world traveler who in his youth "dreamt of becoming a librarian" (p. 5). In The Library at Night, he offers a subjective account of the subjective history of libraries – real, imaginary, hypothetical, and mythical. The book is organized by themes and, it is suggested, compiled from the books on the shelves of Manguel's personal library. The library and the author's nighttime musings within its walls, is a starting point for his discussion.

Much of the book focuses on the shape, construction, and organization of libraries. But Manguel explodes the dimensions of the physical library, offering fifteen ways of looking at a library in fifteen separate chapters. He covers the more noble views – the library as imagination, identity, mind, survival, and immortality –  along with the darker aspects of the pursuit of human knowledge –  the library as shadow and oblivion, used as a tool to selectively recreate history, and a thing destroyed intentionally or through neglect.

Manguel is a story teller and his stories center around individual experience, only occasionally touching on the idea of the library as a public institution and public space. Like the library of Aby Warburg, compiled in Germany around the turn of the 20th century and described by Manguel as being organized in an idiosyncratic, "iconographic" system resembling a "poetic composition" (p. 204), Manguel's book draws links across themes, nations and time periods that can at times seem arbitrary or tenuous. For the most part, his own library remains opaque. Better pictures of it can be found on the Internet than those included in the book. Readers may find navigating the associations of his book to be frustrating at times, but ultimately it is worth it.

"The starting point is a question" (p. 3), states Manguel; one that he promises not to fully answer: Why do we construct libraries? Why do we try to collect and organize human knowledge when we know that it can never be done? This seems like the wrong question, and Manguel ends with a different and more personal inquiry: What is he searching for in constructing his library and his book? The beginning library school student encounters similar questions, again and again. Why library school? Why libraries? These questions come weighted with various judgements and can be difficult to answer, but I think that many of us, like Manguel, come to libraries through a love of reading and books. If nothing else, The Library at Night will assure aspiring librarians and other library lovers that they are in good company.