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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.2 (2002) 337-338

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Book Review

Libraries in the Ancient World

Libraries in the Ancient World, Lionel Casson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 177 p. $22.95 (ISBN 0-300-08809-4)

Lionel Casson is Professor Emeritus of Classics at New York University, and the author of many books on the ancient world, including the recent reissue of Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), as well as editor and translator of anthologies of works by Greek and Latin writers. Casson's history follows the development of ancient libraries chronologically, from roughly 3000 B.C. to 600 A.D. In the process he documents historical events accompanying the rise of literacy, including the establishment of scriptoria, or copying centers, which made available affordable copies of popular and scholarly works; the practice of book collecting; and the growth of libraries, along with the advent of librarianship.

The earliest works of the ancient Near East, such as those found in the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, were preserved on clay tablets in the Mesopotamian region and on papyrus in Egypt. Many of these earliest library materials, which were limited in scope to practical, non-literary records of legal and trade transactions, were the first to use some of the principles of librarianship that are well-established now. These included the titling of works to distinguish one from another, the gathering of similar or related works into series, and the creation and maintenance of catalogues or finding aids.

Founded by the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the Library of Alexandria was the first comprehensive collection of works from all parts of the known world on all subjects from poetry to cookbooks. Arranged in alphabetical order according to the first letter of identifying tabs affixed to them, papyrus rolls were categorized rudimentarily by subject or form of writing and an attempt was made to keep all of the works of an individual author together. Catalogues, lexicons or glossaries, commentaries on scholarly works, and grammars of various languages were the first reference works designed by libraries to aid scholars in their research.

A number of Greek cities, notably Athens and Rhodes, boasted libraries that were connected with gymnasia and were supported by contributions of money and books from members of the community. Greek libraries in smaller towns were usually small rooms where scrolls were stored. These small rooms opened onto a colonnade, where readers could consult scrolls in the open light.

Rome's enthusiastic incorporation of Greek culture was evidenced by the availability [End Page 337] of libraries for the use of scholars and citizens. By the first half of the first century B.C., looting of libraries during wars waged in Greece and Asia Minor had increased Rome's library resources. Roman libraries were arranged much more in accordance with modern library practice, with scrolls placed in niches on two facing walls with the middle of the room reserved for tables and chairs for readers. Often part of bath complexes, Roman libraries were composed of two chambers, one for Greek works, the other for Latin. Works were acquired through donations from wealthy patrons, making copies, and only rarely direct purchase. There is evidence that many libraries in Rome permitted borrowing. By contrast, libraries in towns outside of Rome consisted primarily of the works of standard authors and the twin-chambers arrangement for Greek and Latin works was replaced by single chambers where exclusively Latin works were shelved.

Until the second century A.D., library works consisted entirely of rolls, some of parchment, the majority of papyrus. There was a transitional period when the roll continued to be used for documents and archival records, but the codex, composed originally of wooden tablets, and later parchment sheets bound together, was used almost exclusively for literary and scientific works. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, monastery libraries were established and maintained by literate monks, many of whom were trained to copy Biblical manuscripts. The monasteries preserved most of the classical works of the ancient world that have survived to...


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