Re: Libraries in the Ancient World

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.


7 thoughts on “Re: Libraries in the Ancient World

  1. Thanks for this, Pam. Sounds like an interesting book.

    “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. ”

    Good to know that people have always been complaining about the range in their local bookshops!

  2. So I made a pilgrimage to the library of my childhood…. it had changed. The building had been replaced by one that, from the outside, was larger. From the inside, it seemed paradoxically smaller, and had less shelf footage. The books I’d read as child and teen were gone, alas, likely lost in the drastic “remodeling.”

    Instead of books, the library had internet stations. Extrapolating from this, it appears we’re approaching a post-book society. The material you read will be stored on remote computers. Some of the books I’d read as a child (you know, by Edgar Rice Burroughs) are already available online from Project Gutenberg.

    Threatening the transition to the post-book world is Sonny Bono*-esque indefinite copyright extension. Next time it appears that Mickey Mouse is close to becoming public domain, you can expect Big Disney to buy another congressman.

    I am hoping that some day there will be a sensible copyright law, in which books that have been out of print for a sensible number of years become public domain (and yes, I realize that John Carter and Tarzan would never have become public domain; these series are reprinted about every dozen years). This might prevent the permanent loss of some fine books.

    *Yes, the same Sonny Bono who was half of Sonny & Cher. You’re either old enough to remember the TV series, or old enough to remember the “I Got You Babe” song in the movie Groundhog Day.

  3. @emucompboy

    For some reason, I had to rescue your comment from the spam folder. Akismet owes you an apology.

    Anyway, I would have to go a long way to revisit my childhood library. I was thinking about what would happen to the legacy of a post-book society if the power went out. Who knows what heroic myths a post-Internet Homer would write? (runs off to file idea in incubator.)

    And disney would still have copyright…

  4. Thanks for the rescue. If the power went out… yes, I used to wonder about music — stored digitally, it requires a high tech device to play it.
    For the old 45s, you can cobble together a turntable yourself, and use a cactus needle for a pickup. (I remember seeing a show on television with that; the old geezer was showing the young boy the record player, not realizing the young boy was actually a robot).

    I have several 9-track computer tapes with data on them from college with no way of reading them. I s’pose I should junk ’em. I already threw away my cobol and fortran punchcard decks, and some of my paper tape stuff. These things don’t last forever. I’ve seen old magnetic tapes, cassettes, and even CDs with the data medium peeling away from the plastic.

    You can probably visit your childhood library through the medium of google maps, ground level view. Okay, so you get to see the outside only.

    For far out data storage, I remember a lawyer showing me a scheme for storing a human genome in the wobble codons of an oak tree genome. Total internet scam, LOL. We’ll have that technology some day, but no one’ll put it to uses that frivolous. “Grow a tree that’s yourself!”

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