Brief and Occasionally Accurate History of Libraries – Pt1

Thanks for sticking with The Bedside Blog of Libraries. As I promised in the last post this week we will start that Brief and Occasionally Accurate History of Libraries

This week – Part 1 – From Sumerian Shopping Lists to the Great Library of Alexandria

You can pick up a history of libraries from any decent library if you still have one anywhere near you although you might have to wait while they order it because their own shelves are groaning with James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell so I don’t intend to make you sit through a history lesson that for the UK alone can run to 3 volumes. A very brief introduction, however, to explain how the libraries that we know today emerged and evolved seems a reasonable way to start our exploration of libraries and librarians in popular culture and in any case it will at least save you the trouble of ordering that three volume marathon.

By general consent libraries go back at least as far as the ancient Sumerians with evidence of libraries in the Middle East as far back as 1900 BC although they were not libraries as you or I might recognise them now; they wouldn’t have kiddies corner for a start, there were no ugly machines for borrowing and returning books and the Local History Group didn’t meet there the 3rd Wednesday of every month. They were chiefly just rooms in which scrolls of parchment or vellum or clay tablets often recording commercial or domestic transactions were kept together for administrative convenience, a sort of prototype for the modern filing cabinet or as it is known in our house the dining table. Thankfully of course the content of library collections has improved considerably over the centuries even allowing for the occasional set back from Barbara Cartland and Jeffery Archer. The idea of separate places to house these scrolls and tablets probably came about as it does in your own house and certainly does in mine. Your partner fed up with finding scrolls littering every available surface, says that if you want the next pot boiler from Cicero or Catullus then you either find somewhere else to put them or some of those old ones go straight in to the hypocaust. Homes in Ancient Rome, Greece or Sumeria didn’t have garages obviously and didn’t need roof space as they didn’t need loft insulation, and it would be thousands of years before anyone invented golf clubs, exercise machines or aerobics steps that roof space was invented to accommodate, so it had to be a separate building. There is, though, evidence that some of these prototype libraries did use a formal classification scheme; probably the big-ones-on-the-bottom-shelf-little-ones-on-the top system but even back then you could still search for hours only to discover that the one you wanted was being read by someone else.

One of the earliest library books. “The dog chewed it” pparently, making it also one of the earliest examples of that pathetic old excuse.

One of the earliest library books. “The dog chewed it” apparently, making it also one of the earliest examples of that lame old excuse.

There is evidence of significant libraries in Ancient China and the Middle East although most of the early Chinese libraries have not survived, systematically destroyed by each new dynasty anxious to ensure that history started with them, an idea since adopted by some modern governments. The most famous survivors are perhaps the writings in the Temple of Confucius, examples which whilst solving the eternal problem of preserving documents against decay by writing them on stone pillars, did introduce other complications. The pillars or more correctly stelae could be up 4 m tall, and weigh something like 65 tons of making it a bit tricky to take them home to read in bed. The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in ancient Mesopotamia, dating from C7th BC is considered to be the first real library, one where someone actively gathered selected material together in one place. Remnants of its collection, including the source for what is now the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh one of the world’s earliest works of literature are preserved in the British Museum where, like the Elgin Marbles,  they were transported for safe keeping and to protect them from being taken off to foreign lands by looters!

The most famous of all these ancient libraries was of course the Great Library of Alexandria, commissioned by the great eponymous king after being inspired by a visit to Ashurbanipal and which was completed and flourished under the Ptolemy’s from around the C3rd BC. Its mission statement as we would call it today was to collect all the knowledge in the world which sounds curiously like Google’s mission statement but without all the adverts. Like Google they also had a range of devices of varying probity to achieve this including, apparently, confiscating every book and scroll of which they didn’t have a copy off every ship that docked in Alexandria and from every overland traveller, and copying it before returning it to its owners, no doubt with the corners bent over and coffee stains on the cover. This must have been intensely frustrating to the regular C3rdBC traveller; it’s one thing when the next camel train to Samarkand is delayed because of the wrong kind of sand on the line but quite another to be delayed because someone has forcibly borrowed your library books and can’t let you have them back for 3 months until they have been laboriously copied by hand. And of course the Ptolemy’s never offer to pay the fines when the books get back to Samarkand Branch Library 18 months late. Thanks to this policy of indiscriminately copying everything the size of the library even by modern day standards was remarkable with reports varying between 500,000 and 650,000 scrolls amounting to tens of thousands of actual individual works. Subsequent investigations, however, have seriously undermined these claims discovering that a large percentage of the collection were not valuable and treasured works of great literature but often thousands of sales invoices and bills of laden and even, in the spirit of Walter Miller’s wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitch, several hundred shopping lists .

There have been conflicting theories about the fate of the Great Library of Alexandria blaming its untimely demise variously on a Roman, a Christian or a Muslim, an early prototype for all those Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman jokes. The most enduring is that it was Julius Caesar who burnt the Library down but this is probably because no one has actually heard of Theophilus of Alexandria or Caliph Omar who are the other two suspects whilst Caesar was quite a household name thanks to the Shakespeare play that everyone has to do for GCSE. The case against Theophilus is mainly that he is, allegedly, the patron saint of arsonists which admittedly is pretty compelling but nonetheless entirely circumstantial M’lud. The theories about Caliph Omar seem to have been entirely fabricated by Christian historians to score points in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Middle East floating voters which leaves Caesar as the most likely culprit.

Historians who defend Caesar point out that he wasn’t a big reader and had only borrowed a couple of Lonely Planet guides to Gaul and Britannia which he was sure he had brought back on time despite the reminders. He was on the waiting list for that Shakespeare play about himself but he died before he got to read it which is a shame because if he had he would have known what to expect and might have sorted Brutus out a bit earlier. The case against the great Roman Emperor is that he definitely did set fire to the Egyptian fleet in Alexandria harbour and Plutarch claimed in his evidence to the enquiry that the fire then spread to the harbour and the adjacent library. As anyone who has started a little fire in the garden in the autumn to burn the garden waste will tell you it is easy for them to get out of hand and take out the garden fence, several small furry animals and any nearby branch library. The conviction of Caesar for the destruction of the Library seems to have been secured by the fact that there are no records of the Great Library in Alexandria after the unfortunate incident with the boats so there is unlikely to have been much around for Theophilus and Omar to destroy several hundred years later. There are records of its “daughter library” the Serapeum being around much later and it is probably this one that may or may not have been destroyed by Patriarch Theophilus because it was full of pagan texts or by Caliph Omar because it was full of Christian books. That’s been the lot of librarians ever since. You spend years building a collection to keep your dominate client group happy and suddenly there is an invasion and a new dominant group and all those Catherine Cookson and Miss Read have to go and you have to start building a collection of fifty shades of soft porn instead.

The Library of Alexandria. Only 2000 years behind schedule

The Library of Alexandria. Only 2000 years behind schedule

What is clear is that the rebuilding of the Library at Alexandria must be the most over-running building projects in history. Having been destroyed at the latest estimate in the C6th its replacement didn’t open until the C21st. You would think that after the first millennium or so the client would have spotted that the project team wasn’t up to the job and that a new project manager might just be needed. Then again this was 2,000 years before the invention of the Prince project management methodology and the ancient world version, Vizier Project Management, presumably didn’t have sufficient functionality. Despite this the new Library of Alexandria is an incredible building. I’ve not been there but there are plenty of images and videos to give you to get an idea of the extent and success of this project. Perhaps most interestingly to avoid a repeat of the Caesar incident the Library has tried hard to protect itself. It is camouflaged from hostile approaches from the sea, hidden under a gigantic metal disc that looks like a solar panel on steroids and of course any visitor from Rome is subject to particularly close scrutiny.

Coming Next….
In the next instalment we will look at ancient libraries the Romans didn’t burn down, unfortunate places to build an ancient library and discover the best ancient library to see on your package holiday.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Brief and Occasionally Accurate History of Libraries – Pt1

  1. David

    Look forward to the next episode. DR

    Like

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