A slim book that speaks of many books, from tablets to scrolls to codices, Libraries in the Ancient World, by Lionel Casson, offers a swift overview of book collections in the West. From the origins of writing, libraries have been dealing with cataloging the holdings, repairing damaged books, and preventing theft. In a way, all that really changes is the format of the written word.
The story begins with the clay tablets of the Sumerians and Akkadians, a complicated system of writing, which highly-skilled scribes could write in several languages. Mostly they kept government records, including the reading of omens (similar to the Shang turtle shells, which made me realize this book should have been called Libraries in the Ancient Graeco-Roman World.), as well as hymns and poems, like Gilgamesh. The tablets would be shelved with colophons, headings that described the contents. There were tablets listing what was in the library. And there were also curses on the tablets against people who steal from libraries.
In the Mycenaean Age in Greece (1600 – 1200 BC), great kings with massive palaces also wrote on clay tablets. Around 1200 BC, the cities fell and the knowledge of writing was lost. After the Greek Dark age, only the poems of Homer recalled the past. When the Greeks began to urbanize again, around 800 BC they adapted the Phoenecian alphabet, which had been developed around 1000 BC. By 500 BC, Homer’s texts had been written down, schools had been established, and literacy was common enough for the rich to collect libraries. They read plays, histories, handbooks, even cookbooks.
These libraries were written on scrolls of papyrus, and the scrolls stacked on shelves with tags hanging on the ends to identify them. About all we know of their catalog system is a simple form of alphabetizing. You needed a well-trained clerk to find what you were looking for and pull the scrolls out without damaging them.
The library of Alexandria was founded by the Ptolemies around 300 BC, and its goal was to collect all learning. Books went into the libraries, and learned men were supported by the Museum, an institution dedicated to the Muses, and the first think tank. The library at Pergamum, in Asia Minor, rivalled Alexandria’s so much, the Egyptians embargoed papyrus against going there, so they switched to parchment.
In Republican Rome, bookstores had a poor reputation for stocking only the classic classics (Homer & Euripedes) and selling hastily made copies that were full of errors. Old books were respected because the oldest copies had the fewest mistakes. Imperial Rome established public libraries, impressive buildings, rooms with shelves of rolls surrounding reading area. With public libraries around, book stores could get access to more books and their quality rose.
If you wanted a book for your own library, you would borrow it and have a copy made. If you wrote a book, you had to pay to have copies made and distribute them to your friends, patrons and local libraries. After that, authors had no control over further copying. It’s not clear who did all that copying, but it was probably mostly done by slaves and freedmen.
The codex, essentially the format we now call a book, evolved from tablets held together for a notebook, to sheets folded and stitched together like a pamphlet. Although the codex was more durable and easier to use, tradition held on to the scroll (sound like a familar attitude?) until the Christians. They used codices for the scriptures, as a sign that they were breaking from the past of both Jews and pagans.
As the Western Empire broke up, monasteries established their own libraries. Some had rules that monks should read every day, and illiterate monks must be taught their letters. The book leaves off in the 500s, when Cassiodorus founded a monastary at Vivarium (named after fish ponds nearby) in southern Italy. He expanded the range and depth of his library to include secular books, and taught that copying out manuscripts was an act of devotion.
An interesting little book, which mostly whetted my appetite for learning about the history of writing. Now I can add it to the stack of books to return to my library.