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The Wonder of Libraries: Q&A with PM Literary Awards Shortlisted Author Stuart Kells

November 28, 2018

1. The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is an exploration of the beauty and wonder of libraries, both real and fictitious; a celebration of books and the splendour of the spaces that house them. What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always loved books – their insides and their outsides – and if you’re a book person then by necessity you’re a library person. For a long time I’ve been visiting libraries and collecting stories about them. This book is really a collection of my favourite library stories.

2. This is an immensely detailed book, containing a significant amount of history. What was the research process like?

The research process was a delight! Visiting libraries around the world. Meeting librarians and archivists. Seeing some of their most special books and documents. Capturing and telling their stories. And exploring some of the stranger and more arcane byways of bibliomania.

3. As an author and book-trade historian, why do you think it is important that we preserve the integrity of libraries, both old and new?

Henry Petroski was right when he wrote that books and documents are among the basic data of our civilisation. They are fundamental to who we are as a community, and even as individuals. We leave a lot of ourselves in our books.

4. You travelled the world to gather materials for this book. Of all the places you visited, which library captivated you the most and why?

There were so many highlights. The British Library, the Bodleian, the Library of Congress, Lambeth Palace, the Houghton, the Morgan, the National Diet Library in Tokyo. But the most captivating library was the Abbey Library of San Gallen in Switzerland. A spectacular baroque library, beautifully preserved, rich with history and full of secrets.

5. You have written extensively on print culture, and The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is, in essence, an ode to the beauty and wonder of ‘traditional’ books. Do you think print media will ever truly cease to exist, or is it too embedded in our history, too culturally significant to ever be replaced by technology?

The traditional book is one of the most clever and resilient technologies of all time. There is something very satisfying about reading a physical book, and I think the codex format will always have a place. And as to old and rare books, we’re not making any more of them, so I think they will be appreciated more and more as time goes on.

6. What does being shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards mean for you?

My book is a celebration of libraries and librarians, so the shortlisting is great recognition for people in that field. In some parts of the world, librarians are under-appreciated and libraries are under threat. The shortlisting has helped shine a light on the social and historical value of libraries, and the centrality of books and reading.

About the author:

Stuart Kells is an author and book-trade historian. His 2015 book, Penguin and the Lane Brothers, won the Ashurst Business Literature Prize. An authority on rare books, he has written and published on many aspects of print culture and the book world. Kells lives in Melbourne with his family. His most recent publication is Shakespeare’s Library.


Winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards will be announced on the 5th of December 2018. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for winner updates and author interviews.

You can also join the conversation by using the hashtag #PMLitAwards, and you can read the full list of shortlisted titles here.


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