What Was The First Great Library?
The World Library Blog Newsletter
Volume 1, Number 20
Monday, July 25, 2011
by Michael S. Hart
Founder, Project Gutenberg,
Inventor of eBooks
After two months and 19 twice weekly issues we will try one issue per week for an equal period. Let us know if you prefer one or two per week, or some other number.
What Was The First Great Library?
In our research for the previous two issues we found an inordinate number of libraries claiming to be America's first, and if you are interested, let us know and we'll do some reporting on those. However, we don't expect a conclusive report, as there are so many, and dates from
1706 to 1831 are claimed.
However there is little doubt that the first of what we refer to as great libraries was in Alexandria, Egypt at the time of the Ptolemys, dating back to three hundreds of years before Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra and Christ.
The library was started by Ptolomy I and carried on via his successors to greater and greater degrees.
This was the first known collection of materials from a range that included areas outside the city or nation to form a more worldwide collection of information, views, literature, maps, etc.
While the library is renowned for its policy of legally requiring every ship that passed through to send books, or any other written materials to the library where the materials were copied, and often so well, that the copy was returned to the ship without their knowledge. Some reports say ALL the originals were kept at the library, and ONLY the copies were ever returned.
There is one famous report that the library requested a set of original script for the great Athenian plays and that a guarantee of a thousand pounds of precious metal was required as a deposit to defeat returning copies.
The story is that the vast sum was gladly paid and then forfeited so they could keep the originals.
Certainly a story worthy of the first great library.
However, these were not the only ways they got material to fill the library. Yearly expeditions were sent from Alexandria Rhodes, Athens, etc., to book fairs where it was their practice to return with entire boatloads of a wide assortment of materials.
In addition there are stories of the same arrangements, or similar, made with land travelers as with ships.
This was a very serious effort to collect the wisdom of the known world, and perhaps even to push the boundary, as it were, extending the range of the known world.
Alexandria was one of the most important seaports and a likely even greater one that many might thing because a favorable position, and winds allowed ships from both a westerly direction and easterly, as well as the north.
Alexandria became one of the most important trade route stops which also increased the traffic of materials for copying in the library, and as a result the manufacture of papyrus became one of the local industries.
So successful was their papyrus industry that they were not tempted to shift to parchment along with neighbors, so virtually all of their holdings were papyrus scrolls rather than the new parchment codex format that we call a "book."
There are various stories of the rise and fall of these great collections, some say the number of scrolls could have reached half a million, others say a quarter.
However, since no index remains, it is very hard to say because with longer works more than one scroll counted, so there might have been half a million scrolls, adding up to a quarter of a million titles.
Many, perhaps even most, of those great period scholars such as Archimedes, Euclid, etc., from the known world, are listed as having studied in Alexandria's Musaeum as it included many more institutions than the library for various kinds of research in zoology, medicine, math or geography and many others.
Mark Antony is recorded to have given more than 200,000 scrolls as a wedding present, but this is discounted as propaganda by some as showed Antony's allegiance now to Egypt than to Rome.
We may actually learn more about this great library, as its remains have only recently been located and are the focus of very careful and details excavation.
As for the burning of the library, some say Caesar, who set fire to his ships to stop communication lines was a somewhat accidental cause of a fire that swept a larger portion of the city, including the library.
Many sources say that at least portions of the library, how much is not certain, were maintained until 391 A.D.
when a purge of paganism by the Christian empire got an awful lot out of hand.
There is more, much more, if you are interested and the city of Alexandria should be noted to have housed a few other libraries as well, not to mention other cities in the nearby region, one of which may have been had those
200,000 scrolls given by Antony to Cleopatra.
More research certainly leads to more interesting tales about this portion of our history.