Monday, September 17, 2018

Book Reveals Insights on the World of Libraries

The Library:  A Catalogue of Wonders
by Stuart Kells
                                                                  E X C E R P T S 

A Library With No Books
If a library can be something as simple as an organized collection of texts, then libraries massively pre-date books in the history of culture.  Every country has a tradition of legends, parables, riddles, myths and chants that existed long before they were written down.  Warehoused as memories, these texts passed from generation to generation through dance, gesture and word of mouth….

Cultures that lacked any form of writing could only ever preserve their texts imperfectly.  Those cultures, though, adopted elaborate techniques (such as intricate patterns of repetition) and rules (such as social obligations and taboos) to maintain, as best they could, the integrity of their texts.

Ancient Books and Their Storage
First came oral libraries, then collections of physical books. The roots of the words “library” and “book” derive from different languages – liber is from Latin, while bece, buc, and boc are from the cluster of Germanic languages that includes Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Norse, and Old English.  Both roots, though, have similar meanings: liber is bark, bece beech wood.  Both roots, though, have similar meanings:  liber is bark, bece beech wood.  Both etymologies relate to forest materials for book-making.  The meaning of these roots is important. As soon as people began writing things down, the properties and availability of book-making materials became intertwined with the history of books and libraries…

In the making of books, local availability long dictated what materials would be used, and to what extent; local abundance enabled abundant use. The banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates were heavy with clay, so Mesopotamian scribes naturally used it to make their books.  In the Nile Valley, however, clay was scarce – the very first Egyptian tablets were made from bone and ivory.  Later Egyptian books, in scroll format, used the plentiful pith of the Nile papyrus.  In China, long before Europe, paper was in large quantities from the abundant bamboo and the by-products of everyday life….

Greatest Scroll Library
The greatest scroll library in all history was assembled downstream from the main source of papyrus.  A port city in northern Egypt, Alexandria was a key capital in the Hellenic empire established by Alexander the Great and his generals.  Around 300 B.C., the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic dynasty founded the Great Library of Alexandria inside the fortified walls of the royal palace, on a spit of land between an intertidal lake and the man-made port at Pharos.  The library’s bibliothekai or bookshelves were probably set in recesses along a wide covered passageway.  The precise layout of the collections is uncertain, but the Italian classicist and historian Luciano Canfora surmised, “Every niche or recess must have been dedicated to a certain class of authors, each marked with an appropriate heading.”  Above the bibliothekai was an inscription:  “The place of the cure of the soul.’

Library of Alexandria
The library adopted an admirably inclusive and international ambition:  to assemble books from all the known countries and in all the languages.  During the third century B.C., Ptolemy III sent messages kings, lords, and rajas asking for books to copy.  While in reality most of the texts obtained by the library were Greek, it did succeed in gathering substantial numbers of books from India, the Near and Middle East, and elsewhere in the Alexandrine world – books that represented a multitude of philosophies and creeds.

At its peak, Alexandria’s library held hundreds of thousands of scrolls.  Some accounts have put the number at half a million, others 1 million, plus another 40,000 in a building attached to the Temple of Serapis, in the old Egyptian quarter of Rhakotis…

Many different stories have been told about how the library came to an end.  Perhaps an accidental blaze destroyed it in 47 B.C.  Perhaps it was a casualty of a first-century pagan revolt against Alexandria’s Christianization.  Or perhaps Roman Emperor Aurelian’s troops destroyed it in 273 A.D. when they set fire to Alexandria’s royal quarter.

An altogether different school of thought is that, long before Omar, the manuscripts had simply worn out.  Papyrus is a terrible material for preserving texts.  Without a large and unwavering commitment to conservation and copying, a library of papyrus scrolls will readily and unceremoniously disintegrate – especially in the damp conditions of a river delta.  Alexandria’s library might have just faded away.

Changing Library
For almost 1,000 years, Europe’s libraries held almost nothing but Bibles, church-sanctioned religious tracts, and selected classical works of science and philosophy that were accessible only to a privileged class.  A typical Christian monastery possessed fewer than one hundred books.  Not until the end of the Middle Ages were monastic libraries likely to have more than two or three hundred.

Library Growth
Libraries grow according to their own version of Moore’s Law. Don Tolzman estimated that America’s major libraries were doubling in size every twenty years from the 1870s to the 1940s, and every fifteen years after that.  Globally, the British Library was the first collection to surpass 100 million items.  The Library of Congress was not far behind.  As early as the seventeenth century, people worried about the rate at which books were proliferating.  Leibniz remarked, “if the world goes on this way for a thousand years and as many books are written as today, I’m afraid whole cities will be made up libraries.”  Noticing the explosion of printed titles, Thomas Coryat observed, “methinks we want rather readers for books than books for readers.”

The very first libraries had problems with worms:

Over millennia, the animal kingdom of book botherers has included termites, mud wasps, snakes, skunks, foxes, cockroaches, and silverfish.

When Disaster Strikes
Something similar happened in 1968 at Northwestern University.  A heavy, freestanding section of empty shelving fell against shelves that were full of books.  John Camp and Carl Eckelman reported on the incident in their technical paper on library book stacks:  “a domino effect toppled twenty-seven ranges, spilling 264,000 volumes, splintering solid oak chairs, flattening steel footstools, shearing books in half, destroying or damaging more than 8,000 volumes.”

The Beginning
Between 250,000 and 100,000 years ago, humans began to speak.  About 5,000 years ago – after the domestication of horses, the cultivation of chili, the brewing of beer, the hoisting of sails, and the spinning of clay – humans began to write.

Suppose a library decides to dispose of much of its paper texts, relying instead on microfilm and digital copies, on the grounds that originals are held elsewhere.  And suppose, too, that other libraries make the same judgment.

Much more than accumulations of books, the best libraries are hotspots and organs of civilization; magical places in which students, scholars, curators, philanthropists, artists, pranksters, and flirts come together and make something marvelous.

The digitization of bibliographical treasure is a valuable means through which rare books and manuscripts can be discovered, studied, appreciated, and enjoyed.  Digitization, combined with online publication, gives easy access to texts from anywhere in the world.  Ease of access to rare materials is a boon, as is ease of discoverability.  Digitization is also a technique of conservation.  The case for digitizing early and precious materials is obvious, particularly for especially delicate books that cannot be handled without endangering them.

Something else is lost, too, in the experience of digital browsing.  Browsing books on a screen is utterly alien to the delight of browsing and getting lost in a physical, fractal, serendipitous library of real books.  This book has walked through many different species of the wonder of libraries:  secret, hidden spaces; marvelous chance discoveries; high art in paint, stucco, timber, and stone; and every aspect of the human drama, from triumph to despair.  The physicality of books in libraries – spines, fore-edges, verticality, shelf-marks, bookcases, stacks, stalls, halls, domes – all these may be read so what we may know the histories of the books and the libraries; when and how they were made, how they were used and appreciated.  In the case of digital texts and digital libraries, such a mode of reading is impossible or irrelevant.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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