- The History of the Library in Western Civilization: From Constantine the Great to Cardinal Bessarion
Not every sumptuously illustrated, large-format book printed on heavy coated paper is a coffee-table book, at least if by "coffee-table book" we mean a volume intended primarily for the home, resting on a coffee table, put there to encourage conversation or relieve boredom. For one thing, at four and a half pounds, this third and most recent addition to the projected five-volume History of the Library in Western Civilization may in fact be too heavy for the average American coffee table. More to the point, however, there is so much scholarship gathered together or otherwise referenced here that unwary house guests who actually succeed in heaving this tome onto their laps may quickly regret their boldness. Except for the pictures, this is simply not a book for casual browsers.
Does that make it, however, a book for library historians? That is the question to be addressed here. The very existence of a six hundred–page work on Byzantine libraries embedded centrally, as the middle volume, in a history of the library in Western civilization represents a welcome corrective one one line to the usual and unconsidered view that there is a closed tradition of Western libraries and librarianship. The standard histories begin with the ancient Mesopotamians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, then continue through the Middle Ages—thanks to Cassiodorus, Alcuin, and (Western) monasticism—with the modern library emerging from the Renaissance on, all of this transpiring in western, central, and southern Europe. The extraordinary importance of Arabs, Jews, and Byzantines in this development is, as a rule, wholly overlooked. Regarding the first two groups, a recent conference at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin celebrating the [End Page 351] medievalist and Orientalist Moritz Steinschneider (1816–1907), "the father of Jewish bibliography," reminded at least those present that the history of cultural transmission in the West would be unthinkable without the intermediary role of Arabs and Jews. Among Steinschneider's important works were Die arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1893) and Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (Berlin: Kommissionsverlag des Bibliographischen Bureaus, 1893). They document the debt owed to Jewish and Arab scholars, translators, and librarians exhaustively and compellingly. Now Konstantinos Staikos, architect by profession and bibliophile by passion, known to readers outside Greece through his monumental The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press/British Library, 2002) and other works, shows how the Byzantine Empire was at least as important as the monastic centers of the West, along with the scholarly Arabs and Jews from Cordoba to Baghdad, in perpetuating the tradition of the great libraries of the ancient world. Granted, the "contribution" of the Byzantines was not always voluntary. Many of their treasures fell to the conquerors from the West during the disastrous Latin occupation of Constantinople from 1204 to 1261 and to those from the East, the Ottoman Turks, during and after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The level of detail of Staikos's treatment is often astonishing, though it quickly becomes clear that he draws copiously upon modern Greek scholarship that is linguistically inaccessible to most Western researchers. And yet he is also at home in the extensive literature of German-, French-, and English-language library historiography, citing obscure but important journal articles and monographs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All of his sources are scrupulously referenced. Indeed, the work has more than a thousand notes, and the bibliography is forty-nine pages long. Regarding the library of the Prodromos Monastery in Constantinople, for example, we read of its growth and development from the sixth century onward; how in its scriptorium the works of Aristotle, Euripides, Polybius, and Plutarch were copied; and how after the fall of the city "its library evidently suffered no...