BMCR 2001.04.25

Libraries in the Ancient World

, Libraries in the ancient world. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. xii, 177 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm. ISBN 0300088094 $22.95.

To appreciate the fragility and achievement of libraries, one should probably go someplace like the National Library of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, a neoclassical building set back on its own grounds, a memorial to the ambivalences of French colonialism. In the porch, an inscription made bitterly ironic by Cambodia’s tragedies of the 1970s bravely proclaims an intellectualist creed: “La force lie un temps, l’idée enchaine pour toujours.” Inside, a handful of staff and no readers sit in semi-darkness amidst a ragged collection: crumbling sets in French on bad old paper cheek by jowl with the derelicts of post-Khmer Rouge visitations—popular western fiction and computer manuals, whatever might be left or donated by visiting relief workers, engineers, and the occasional tourist.

For a library is not a building: it is rather the convergence of a building, a collection, and a community of users. The users were torn brutally away from the building and the collection in Phnom Penh and have never really returned, leaving the physical manifestation of the library to deteriorate with painful slowness. (The situation is not entirely gloomy: a mile away the University of Phnom Penh has dedicated a new building, prudently named after the prime minister, and is gathering books and students in a concerted effort at rebirth—but there again, it is the human factor that is decisive.)

Lionel Casson’s welcome, polished, and readable volume has buildings, collections, and readers from throughout antiquity. Though Mesopotamia and the early middle ages figure in the opening and closing chapters, the heart of the book is classical Greek and Latin culture. It is unfortunate in the nature of the evidence that we have very little that lets us see buildings, collections, and users through the same lens at the same time. Hence there is discussion of archaeological evidence for buildings, of textual evidence about collections, and very limited fragments of textual evidence about the way users came to the libraries. The book does not attempt to break significant new ground and is dependent on the best works in the field: e.g., Fraser’s Ptolemaic Alexandria, Blum’s Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Beginnings of Bibliography, and Skeat/Roberts on the rise of the codex. The story in its main outlines will be familiar to most classicists, but it is brought together, brought (most welcomely) up to date, and fluently and persuasively told.

The focus of the central chapters of the narrative passes from (naturally) the Alexandrian library to Cicero and the textual practices discernible in his letters and finally to the reconstruction of the great libraries of the city of Rome. The account of Alexandria is refreshingly free of the heavy breathing that often accompanies discussions of that totemic site (e.g., Canfora’s The Vanished Library). Of most use to the literary student will be the concise, lucid, and current description of the history of library buildings at Rome and elsewhere in the empire as unearthed by the archaeologist’s shovel. The author’s interest tails off rapidly in late antiquity and the last scrappy chapter is too heavily dependent on outdated scholarship—one could wish he had told the story, for example, of the library we hear of in Sidonius Apollinaris ( ep. 2.9) of fifth century Gaul, where separate spaces were set out for men and women readers, with works of “Latinum eloquium” in the mens’ end of the building, while works of “stilus religiosus” surrounded the seating for the matronae. The making and remaking of classical literature by its heirs is increasingly seen as an important part of classical history, but fades from view here.

The limitations of ancient evidence have always posed special risks for the historian of libraries. Knowing what a library is and how it works (as we think we do), we are inevitably driven to project modern practices back onto scanty ancient remains, and so we speak of “acquisitions” and “cataloging”. Casson is cautious here, but is inevitably driven to using some such assumptions in order to make a coherent picture of the fragments of evidence. Three elements of ancient practice emerge from these pages to retain attention.

First, recognizing the constructedness of the categories of “archive” and “library” reveals the power of the latter notion. It is often far from clear in looking at ancient remains which category to use, but it is clear that the more flexible and open notion of “library” is one that our ancients invent. An archive documents the past and is preserved for relatively few and specialized readers and might be thought to be the natural way to collect the textual past. A library, on the other hand, looks to the future and organizes and presents the past to a more prospective set of readers, who use the materials they find in unpredictable ways. Indeed, it may well be the users and the use they make of a given collection of documents that determines whether it ascends to the rank of a library or remains in the role of an archive; and the best library may be the one in which the materials it houses are used in the most unexpected ways.

Second, the presence of libraries in the great bathing establishments of antiquity throws interesting light on modern practice. Mutatis mutandis, I have always told my students that the baths played some of the role in Roman society of the modern shopping mall—the enclosed public space, socially controlled, with an ostensible utilitarian purpose but in fact a crucial role as a place to meet and mingle as anonymously or as publicly as one chose. Now, it is conventional these days to marvel at the crowds in bookstore superstores late of a Saturday night and to wonder what has become of the urge to visit public libraries. The distinction, it seems clear when we look at ancient practice, is not one of the nature of the establishment, but its social positioning. If our libraries sit apart on the town green, with too little parking and too few evening and weekend hours, they will always be at a disadvantage to the book and video stores that crowd our malls. The social function of the library, ancient or modern, thus needs a careful ethnographic analysis quite beyond the scope of Casson’s volume.

Finally, the signal feature that sets ancient libraries apart from modern ones is the rarity and expensiveness of books. Not only did this limit audience and availability, but it tipped the balance sharply in favor of the past. We have libraries full of books that we cannot attend to because we are swamped in a flood of new production. No ancient reader felt that urgency of the present, and so the collection of a library was perforce more stable and its influence more persistent. The intellectual function of a library thus depends on the economics of production in ways that are all but irrecoverable for modern analysis in the case of ancient collections.

This slim volume is handsomely produced and especially enhanced with 30 well-chosen illustrations that give the reader a vivid physical sense of the spaces in which ancient readers made libraries for themselves. That sense and the distillation of the broad narrative are the chief excellences of this stimulating book.