BMCR 1996.04.32

1996.4.32, Harris, History of Libraries

, History of libraries in the western world. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995. v, 301 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780810829725

The last ten years have witnessed a marked increase in studies on books and literacy in a number of fields ranging from history to psychology to sociology to literature. This particular effort is by a professor of library and information science, Michael H. Harris. It is a new edition of a work first published in 1965 by another author, Elmer Johnson, and last revised by him and H. in 1976. Since then H. alone produced the “Compact Text Edition” in 1984.

It is no easy task to survey the entire history of libraries in the Western World, especially within a relatively short compass. The current edition covers anything that might remotely resemble a library or an archive. Harris divides his work into three major parts: the “ancient world”; medieval libraries; and “modern library development” which takes up nearly two-thirds of the text. Within the section on medieval libraries he devotes a chapter to Byzantine and Moslem libraries. My comments here are restricted to the first part, the ancient world, my own area of expertise.

Because all of the ancient world, including the Near East (but significantly Ebla is not mentioned) and Egypt, takes up only 68 pages, H. is necessarily telescopic in his discussion. He provides interesting details on matters often not discussed by classicists. As a librarian, he is very much aware of the importance of furnishings and catalogues in the use of any library. Unfortunately, when he discusses these matters, he gives no references for his statements, be they from modern publications or ancient sources. The only exception I found was when he literally cited chapter and verse for a biblical reference (p. 61). When he refers to different theories and interpretations, he never names the scholars who make them. Instead each chapter ends with a short description of some works not directly mentioned in his discussion, followed by a very brief listing of some more. All references are to works written in English only. Nor is H. always up to date. For example, he cites (p. 53) Reynolds and Wilson in the first, not the third edition. 1 Many of his references—and this is not meant as a criticism—are to various library journals and publications often not cited by classicists. Both groups, librarians and scholars, should be more aware of each other’s work.

Because H. uses modern terms throughout, he leaves the impression that libraries then were very much like those today. I give three examples. He says (p. 49): “Among academic libraries [at Athens] were those of the secondary schools, the general colleges or universities, and the special schools of philosophy and medicine.” I don’t think any classicist would use these terms. Nor do I think that secondary schools, whatever they may be, would have had libraries. It is worse, when he posits the existence of (p. 10) an “official or ‘copyright’ collection of manuscripts … in the days of Sophocles and Euripides.” Merely putting ‘copyright’ in quotation marks is insufficient to indicate that no such concept existed in antiquity. He then adds that “When correct texts were always available in an official library, all other copies could be checked against the official one at any time, and any question as to accuracy or authenticity could always be answered.” I doubt that such checking occurred on a regular basis, much less always. He speaks (p. 59) of the Library of Hadrian in Athens as having “a proper ‘circulation desk’ atmosphere.” While it is heartwarming that someone believes in the importance of classical antiquity as the source for all sorts of modern phenomena, it does the field little good when those claims are inaccurate.

H. takes a very rosy view of ancient libraries and literacy despite his citation of William Harris’ work. 2 As a result, he says (p. 10) “… by the time of the Greeks and Romans, if not earlier, the well-stocked private library was not unusual.” I would have said that a well-stocked private library in antiquity was unusual at any time and possessed by only the very wealthy. Smaller numbers of books (I would not use the term “library”) are another situation. He tends to assume that a single case represents the tip of the iceberg rather than an isolated incident. So, he says (p. 51): “we have only fragmentary, incidental references to libraries … [because] libraries were considered so necessary to a well-ordered society that writers did not consider it of importance to mention them.”

I recognize that it can be a Herculean task to master another field’s terminology and minutiae. Nonetheless, the number of mistakes and misunderstandings are too large. I give a sample here in order of occurrence. H. says that papyrus was not used on the reverse (cf. p. 12), when it often was. It is Sargon, not Argon, of Akkad (p. 17). H. refers (p. 46) to Ptolemy VIII (Euergetes II) by the “uncommon,” punning nickname of “Kakergetes” (Athenaeus 4.184c) and then mixes him up with Ptolemy IX Soter. He has some strange phrasings, such as (p. 46) “This story is based on the translation of a passage from the historian Dio Cassius …” “Wherever the Atrium Libertatis is in Rome it is not on the Aventine” (p. 57). I do not understand (p. 62): “In the early Christian churches, the small collection of scriptures and related books was kept to the left.” Left of what? From where? On the same page, he speaks of “semi-reliefs” rather than, presumably, low reliefs. Worse he conflates the temple proper of Apollo Palatinus with the Library attached to that temple. He also says (p. 62) that for the Romans “There were often two divisions of the library, Greek and Latin, with sometimes a third division for archives.” While the first part of the statement is true, the second is not.

This book is clearly popular or it would not have gone through so many editions. While I cannot judge the sections on later libraries, I am very disturbed by the treatment of ancient libraries with its factual errors, absence of citations keyed to the discussion, and view of classical libraries as essentially modern.

  • [1] L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars. A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 3rd edition (Oxford 1991). [2] William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA 1989). H. does not cite the one-volume review: Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplementary Series 3: Literacy in the Roman World (Ann Arbor, 1991).