The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World

Stephen Bales welcomes a comprehensive challenge to a reductionist reification

August 5, 2010

What scholar or student hasn't heard of the ancient Library of Alexandria? Academics are regularly beaten over the head with the spectre of the place. The Alexandrian Library has become a sort of Platonic form: something transcendent, a universal, a given. The libraries and archives that preceded the Library have been subordinated as precursors, evolutionary dead ends or also-rans, although I am not convinced that the great library of Ashurbanipal was anything more than a massive receipt box.

Those libraries that followed Alexandria, including the book collections at Pergamum, Rome, Timbuktu, Harvard University and Washington DC, are given as imitations, effigies or homages rather than refinements. We even read descriptions of the World Wide Web as a "new Library of Alexandria", as if it has the best chance to become what the library means.

This monolithic reification of the ancient library as Alexandria is inaccurate. It reeks of cultural chauvinism and places artificial constraints on discussions of the library as concept. Fortunately, classicist Yun Lee Too is not easily star-struck. Her thoughtful and exceedingly thorough study of the idea of the ancient library from the archaic period to the Byzantine Dark Ages, a period of roughly 1,500 years, explodes such shallow characterisations. No matter how grand Alexandria was, no matter what cultural myths the Alexandrian Library signifies, the place remains only one possible expression of the ancient library as abstraction. Too argues convincingly that the ancient library is a multivariate concept that extends beyond the physical collection of scrolls, tablets or codices.

The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World is a wide-ranging work. Rather than approaching the volume as a single unified treatise, one might best read it as a congeries of essays surrounding broader categories of the ancient library as concept. Too's expansive approach bolsters her thesis that the ancient library is much more than the typically reductionist literature suggests. Chapters examine the library alternatively as an apparatus for asserting state authority and control, as a physical-cultural space beyond the texts themselves, and as a tool for the maintenance of authoritative cultural canons - memory aids manifesting in multiple, alternative forms (or, as in the case of "library-books", forms within forms).

This last idea, the library as memory, is fascinating. It de-centres the concept of the ancient library, removing the assumed necessity of place and rendering form malleable. Libraries, Too explains, may even be understood as individual works, such as Diodorus Siculus' Library of History, Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae or Apollodorus' Library of Greek Mythology. These "library-books" served the same function as "library-collections", collocating cultural memory while acknowledging the intertextual and cosmopolitan nature of knowledge.

Going further, Too argues that people embodied similar functions as libraries in the ancient world, again through memory. Following the tradition of the Greek rhapsodes and Homeridae, ancient scholars (and most ancient "scholars" following Aristotle were essentially indistinguishable from ancient "librarians") were required to memorise large numbers of texts, becoming living reservoirs of knowledge. Using the example of Aristophanes of Byzantium, a librarian of Alexandria who exposed a poet's plagiarism after locating the victimised text because he had memorised the entire collection, Too suggests that the early ancient institutional library was essentially non-navigable without the coexistence of the librarian as "living library".

These categories, "library-books" and "living libraries", allow the reader to understand the library as "an evolving idea, changing with time to include developing notions of textuality and learnedness".

There are many engrossing ideas in this book, and all are developed with extensive reference to classical source material. While the non-specialist may find that the frequent use of Greek and Latin quotations makes for slow going, a careful reading is ultimately rewarding. This fascinating book extends the ancient library well beyond Alexandria's hoary shadow.

The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World

By Yun Lee Too

Oxford University Press

6pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780199577804

Published 7 January 2010

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