Libraries & Culture 37.2 (2002) 186-187
[Access article in PDF]
Libraries in the Ancient World
Libraries in the Ancient World. By Lionel Casson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. xii, 169 pp. $22.95 (paper). ISBN 0-300-08809-4.
Libraries in the Ancient World is the most recent rendering of the history of libraries from the development of writing in the ancient Near East at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. until the early Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity and monasticism. This latest work by the Classicist Lionel Casson is both compelling and accessible and will appeal in equal measures to scholar and layperson alike. Casson exhibits a deft touch for instilling a striking immediacy into the historical discourse. The narrative is well constructed, lively, and interspersed with pertinent anecdotal tidbits that make for compelling reading. His expertise in matters relating to the ancient world is clearly evident. Casson has published extensively on the subject, especially on ancient Rome and Egypt, and is known as an expert on seafaring and trade in the Mediterranean of antiquity.
Libraries in the Ancient World is presented as "the first full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world" (ix). As the study of the history of ancient libraries dates to Justus Lipsius's late-sixteenth-century work, and we know of earlier attempts that have not survived, it would be more accurate to assert that this is one of the first studies to focus exclusively on the ancient world, especially as it relates to antiquity's contribution to our conceptualization of the present-day library institution and related, interdependent social features such as education, the spread of literacy, bureaucracy, and so forth. In this respect Casson has identified the long-existing need for a contemporary companion volume to Ernst Posner's groundbreaking but by now sadly dated Archives in the Ancient World (1972). (Olof Pedersèn's brilliant Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East: 1500-300 B.C.  [End Page 186] is chronologically and contextually too specialized to be offered as a general introduction to the topic and can, for the sake of argument, be disregarded.)
Casson touches on every issue related to the development of ancient collections: accessibility, acquisition, arrangement, transmission, the influence of the physical properties of the different writing materials on collection development, language distri-bution, education, rates of literacy, the book trade, and so forth. The work is chronologically structured. It commences with a cryptic discussion of the beginnings of libraries in the ancient Near East and in Greece. Casson is of the opinion that this period in library history is dominated by elitist, royal collections with extremely restricted access. The library of Ashurbanipal is the best example of such a collection.
Central to Casson's definition of libraries is the matter of accessibility: the emergence of the library as a public institution was the most important development in the history of libraries in antiquity. This leaves the impression that the influence of ancient Near Eastern collections on later institutions is minimal. Egypt's contribution to the Ptolemaic library of Alexandria is summarily dismissed when it is claimed that this rich civilization had "nothing to add to the history of libraries" (16). Thus it follows that the library of Alexandria comes to be described as the beginning of this institutional evolution toward free access. Alexandria was "comprehensive, embracing books of all sorts from everywhere, and it was public, open to anyone with fitting scholarly or literary qualifications" (31). Given the author's emphasis on the centrality of the public library to the development of libraries, it is not surprising that roughly 52 percent of the book is devoted to the growth and development of libraries in Rome. The work concludes with a cursory look at the influence of Christianity on the characteristics of the library as we know it today.
Casson's argument is clear: the public libraries of Rome are to be considered the most significant development for the emergence of libraries in the ancient world. The expansive accessibility of libraries in...