This is National Library Week, so I wanted to write something in honor of libraries and the wonderful people who run them (one of whom is my mother! Hi, Mom! All my fiction books are still alphabetized by author!). If you don’t usually bother going to your public library, you should! There are usually events and programs, and a library card lets you read more widely by saving you the trouble of deciding whether you’re interested enough in a book to buy it. (This is the only reason my own book collection isn’t completely out of control.)
I considered a few different library-related topics, but I eventually decided on the Library of Alexandria, one of the most famous libraries of the ancient world. Unfortunately, these days it’s probably best known for not being around anymore. Tradition holds that it was burned, but it may have been destroyed by some other means, and it may have happened all at once or over time.
The Library’s untimely destruction means that a lot of what we know about it is cobbled together from sources of varying reliability, but we know enough to get a reasonable picture of what it was like and how it reflected and affected the culture of the day. Being a nerd, I think this is pretty cool, and I really enjoyed learning more about it.
Here are some of the features you can look forward to, if you ever invent a time machine and use it to try to prevent the catastrophic loss of knowledge that occurred when the Library was lost:
The Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt was probably founded in the third century BC, a time at which scholars around the Mediterranean mostly recorded and copied their books on papyrus scrolls. (In fact, the demand for papyrus for the Library archives may have played a role in the increased popularity of parchment, which others used as a substitute since the Library was hogging all the papyrus!) Estimates vary pretty widely, but the Library may have had several hundred thousand of these scrolls.
To put that in perspective, the 2015 results of the Public Library Data Service Survey show that participating US libraries had a mean collection size of 341,923 items. That’s right, it’s been 2,000 years and we’ve had computers for a while now and the printing press for a bit longer than that, and our libraries are still about the size of the Library of Alexandria. (Yes, some of those scrolls were multiple parts of the same work, but still!) Think of how many books, CDs, DVDs, and magazines come out every year now and how easy it is to copy them, compared to the output of a smaller population with a lower literacy rate and hand-copied manuscripts.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty impressive.
Or Musaeum, actually. The Library was part of (or at least connected with) a larger complex called the Musaeum, named for its dedication to the Muses, the classical Greek personifications of the arts. This institution gave its name to all the museums we have today, but it wasn’t a collection of art—instead, it was a collection of scholars, the idea being that the Muses were best served by bringing together the brightest minds of the Hellenistic world.
The Musaeum would have been an incredible place to be, if you were lucky enough to be a scholar in the Hellenistic world. Greek influence, spread by the conquests of Alexander the Great, was able to bring in brilliant philosophers, poets, astronomers, and historians (among others), who lived at the Musaeum with all expenses paid, plus a nice salary. A thousand scholars or more at a time would be able to enjoy the gardens, colonnades, study rooms, and lecture halls, not to mention the Library.
First library classification system!
When you have hundreds of thousands of scrolls lying around, you don’t want to leave them just…well, lying around. Zenodotus, the first librarian of the Great Library, came up with the idea of grouping subjects in different rooms and alphabetizing the scrolls by author. The scrolls were stored on shelves with tags on each scroll giving the title, author, and subject, but that’s still a lot of scrolls to keep track of.
To help minimize the literary chaos, another scholar, Callimachus, came up with a scheme called the Pinakes, named after the tablets that hung above the bins of scrolls. The Pinakes is widely considered the first true library catalog, going beyond rudimentary grouping of subjects and authors. The catalog was 120 volumes long and organized the Library’s collection into genres, as well as giving bibliographical and biographical information on the author of each work. Thanks to Callimachus, patrons were able to learn not only whether the Library had a particular work and where to find it, but also what else they might learn from this author and related works.
Juicy library drama!
No library is complete without this item. The Great Library was an expression of the desire to collect all knowledge, and the librarians, backed by the Ptolemaic rulers, acquired a certain reputation for taking any measures necessary to get what they wanted.
One story claims that Ptolemy III paid the Athenian government a huge safety deposit to allow the Library to borrow and copy the original works of the poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Once they’d done their copying, the Library wasn’t satisfied with the copies—oh no, only the best for the Great Library! Instead, they kept the originals and sent the copies to Athens, happily forfeiting their preposterous deposit. (Part of me thinks this was totally understandable and worth it.)
Other stories describe the librarians confiscating books from any ship entering the harbor, often choosing to copy them and—you guessed it—return the copies while keeping the originals. I suppose this would be an interesting way to spread the word about the quality of your collection, but I’m glad the Library of Congress doesn’t do this at customs.
As a closing note, I want to point out that if you search for “library of alexandria” in Google, you come up with a sidebar that explains the fame of the ancient library…and right below that, “Hours: Open today, 11 AM-7 PM.” Those hours are for the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and it makes me happy to see both the ancient and modern results come up together. Technology changes with the times, but libraries adapt and just keep on going.