The History of the Library in Western Civilization: From Petrarch to Michelangelo

By Konstantinos Staikos. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2012. 588 pp. $75.00 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-58456-182-8.

From Petrarch to Michelangelo is the fifth and final installment in a series of books published by Oak Knoll Press that chronicles the history of the library in the Western world. In this volume, Staikos explores the ways that the humanistic movement, beginning with Petrarch in mid-14th century Italy and spreading outward, influenced the rise of both public and private libraries in an effort to reconnect with the ancient Greco-Roman traditions that had been abandoned during the Middle Ages.

Although From Petrarch to Michelangelo is a rather weighty tome, and somewhat physically unwieldy, it is printed in a large font and possesses substantial margins, making the volume slightly less intimidating to the reader. The aesthetic appeal of the book is also enhanced by extensive full-color photographs, creating a work that is both informative and visually engaging. Within the end matter, Staikos provides a number of resources to aid in the use of the book, including a list of relevant abbreviations, a substantial bibliography, and thorough index.

Staikos describes his subject in great detail by examining several facets of library history in the West during the Renaissance. He divides the book into eight chapters, focusing each on an influential phenomenon that contributed to the development of libraries during the period. An alternative and potentially clearer organizational structure would be to group the content into three distinct sections: the role of scholars and the clergy, changes in the nature and production of library collections, and the evolution of library architecture. The first section would include his discussion of the rise of humanistic philosophy, particularly emphasizing French humanism and Erasmus, and the libraries of specific Byzantine scholars and Renaissance clerics. Currently, this content is distributed across chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5. The second section would more effectively consolidate Staikos’ discussion of the invention of printing, new forms of Christian literature based on the humanistic influence, and the development of other new forms of literature during the Renaissance, which are now spread across chapters 3, 6, and 7. Staikos separates the evolution of library architecture into its own chapter, and maintaining this separation seems appropriate.

Staikos states in his acknowledgements that the development of this five-volume History of the Library in Western Civilization series has consumed more than a decade, and the level of detail present in From Petrarch to Michelangelo is a testament to the amount of work involved. The depth of information Staikos provides is impressive, but also can create challenges for the reader. He gives a wide-ranging and comprehensive description of the changes in libraries during the Renaissance, but the text occasionally has a tendency to become bogged down in lengthy descriptions of individual collections, which causes the book to lose a sense of momentum. Perhaps the physical reorganization suggested in the previous paragraph, or an isolation of the descriptions to a series of notes or appendices, would have improved the pace of the text. Otherwise, the reader is best served by treating the book as a reference work, appropriate for occasional consultation, rather than attempting to read it cover to cover.

In conclusion, Staikos has assembled a significant amount of content on the subject at hand. He approaches the topic from several angles, providing a comprehensive examination of the influences upon and changes occurring in European libraries during the Renaissance. It seems that for ease of use on the part of the reader, the book could easily have been divided and marketed as three or more separate works, although that may have compromised the continuity of the existing History of the Library series.

Jennifer K. Sheehan, Ph.D., University of North Texas