February 17, 2018

Matthew Battles | Movers & Shakers 2004

Our Public Intellectual

Many of us take for granted the tools of the librarian’s trade: typography, books, even the idea of a library. But when Matthew Battles looks at these things, he sees responses that evolved to meet human needs and wants to know more. What purposes were these tools put to and what do they tell us about the culture that produced them? What does the destruction of books and libraries tell us about the power of the ideas inside them?

What Battles thinks about, he writes about. After ‘Lost in the Stacks’ appeared in Harper’s
he was invited to expand the article into Library: An Unquiet History
(Norton, 2003). ‘I didn’t want to write a dry history of library facts,’ Battles says. ‘I wanted to look at the interplay between knowledge and cultures.’ This goal prompts Battles’s friend Joshua Glenn of the Boston Globe
to describe him as ‘Harvard Square’s last true public intellectual–and a scholar of the history of the very idea of the library.’

Battles’s research convinced him that the ‘privacy and civil liberties of library users aren’t givens–they’re the product of recent history and of work by librarians. Countless authoritarian societies have shown that libraries, like all civil institutions, can become tools of suppression and surveillance.’

Battles believes that there can be such a thing as too much cooperation among libraries. Ultimately, what preserves texts is that there are lots of copies, spread around. He also wonders about preservation decisions. We save what we consider the best, but Battles would like to preserve some of the ephemera: memos and shopping lists that will tell future generations how we lived.

It’s not surprising that a man with his interests in ideas, scholarship, and writing chose librarianship. His joking explanation is that it was ‘a form of penance for my awful childhood record of overdue books.’ But the real truth, according to Battles, is that the library is ‘the closest thing I know to a homeland.’

As a citizen of that homeland, he represents it very well indeed.


Current Position: Coordinating Editor, Harvard Library Bulletin, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Education: M.A., Creative Writing, Boston University, 1996
Forthcoming: A history of Harvard’s Widener Library