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Alexandria, its ancient library, and losing knowledge

24 Nov
A 19th century illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
A 19th century illustration of the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
 Heritage Images/Getty Images

The opening episode of Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, first shown in 1980, lamented the most famous burning of books in history—the conflagration that destroyed the Library of Alexandria. “If I could travel back into time,” Sagan told his viewers, it would be to the Library of Alexandria, because “all the knowledge in the ancient world was within those marble walls.” The destruction of the library was, he said, a warning to us 1,600 years later: “we must never let it happen again.”

Sagan stood in a line of writers who, for the last two or three hundred years, have made the word Alexandria conjure up not a place—a city in Egypt—but an image of a burning library. The term Alexandria has become shorthand for the triumph of ignorance over the very essence of civilization. From the French Revolution, through the early history of the United States of America, from the First World War to the conflicts in the Balkans in the late 20th century, the word Alexandria has been a reference point for the subsequent destruction of libraries and archives. The greatest library ever assembled by the great civilizations of the ancient world—containing a vast ocean of knowledge now lost to us forever—was incinerated on a great pyre of papyrus.

The story of Alexandria is a myth—in fact a collection of myths and legends, sometimes competing with each other—to which the popular imagination continues to cling. The idea of a truly universal library, a single place where the entire knowledge of the world was stored, has inspired writers as well as librarians throughout history. Our knowledge of the real ancient Library of Alexandria is to say the least patchy, the primary sources being few, and mostly repeating other sources, now lost, or too distant to be able to be sure of. If we are going to heed Sagan’s warning, however, we must be sure of the true reason for the library’s demise.

There were in fact two libraries in ancient Alexandria, The Mouseion and the Serapeum, or the Inner and Outer Libraries. One of our sources about the Alexandrian Library is the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who, in his History (written around AD 380-390) also brings together the two key facts: that there was a massive library, and that it was destroyed.

But while the fact that the library failed to exist beyond the classical period is unquestioned, exactly why is less clear.

So begins historian Richard Ovenden’s concise consideration of the destruction of the famous ancient library of Alexandria. You may read his entire Time story here.

A Trove of Sad, Funny, and Familiar Stories From the 1918 Flu Pandemic

5 May

"The package may be small, but you will know it does not need to hold the love I send, for that cannot be confined," Hildreth Heiney wrote to her fiancé in 1918. The man in the photograph, identified as John, may be her brother.

“The package may be small, but you will know it does not need to hold the love I send, for that cannot be confined,” Hildreth Heiney wrote to her fiancé in 1918. The man in the photograph, identified as John, may be her brother. UCLA BIOMEDICAL LIBRARY / PUBLIC DOMAIN

ON NOVEMBER 21, 1918, AN Indianapolis schoolteacher named Hildreth Heiney wrote to her deployed fiancé, Sergeant Kleber Hadley, about the sudden appearance of face masks in response to the global influenza pandemic. “Yes, I wore one, and so did everybody else,” she wrote cheerfully. “There were all kinds—large and small—thick and thin, some embroidered and one cat-stitched around the edge.” An order to wear masks in public had just taken effect in Indiana, and Heiney seemed to take it in stride. “O, this is a great old world!” she went on, poking fun at funny-looking mask-wearers. “And one should surely have a sense of humor.”

Heiney’s colorful letters are part of a remarkable collection of “personal narratives, manuscripts, and ephemera” about the 1918–1919 flu in the biomedical library of the University of California, Los Angeles. There are letters from California mayors about influenza death rates; Thanksgiving postcards written by children; and laconic Yankee diaries, such as this tragic entry from a Mrs. Slater: “Rained. Spent the day home. Veree Clark died of influenza. E.F. King’s wife funeral. Buzzed wood home.”

So begins Jessica Klein’s fascinating report on the influenza pandemic of 1918 materials at the UCLA Biomedical Archives. You may read her entire Atlas Obscura report here.

How to Help Librarians and Archivists From Your Living Room

25 Mar

The Newberry wants help deciphering 140-year-old letters such as this one, written by a teacher named Anna Everett, who settled in her family’s home in Remsen, New York.

The Newberry wants help deciphering 140-year-old letters such as this one, written by a teacher named Anna Everett, who settled in her family’s home in Remsen, New York. THE NEWBERRY

IF TIME AT HOME HAS you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.

So begins Jessica Leigh Hester’s Atlas Obscura story on helping archivists from your home. You may read her entire story here.

On the Hunt for National Treasures With America’s Archive Detective

20 Aug

Mitch Yockelson (left), investigative archivist, and Jay Bosanko (right), COO of the National Archives, with recently rediscovered documents in 2016.

Mitch Yockelson (left), investigative archivist, and Jay Bosanko (right), COO of the National Archives, with recently rediscovered documents in 2016. BILL O’LEARY/THE WASHINGTON POST VIA GETTY IMAGES

Mitch Yockelson knows what’s missing by heart. There’s an arsenal of diamond-encrusted daggers, swords, and scabbards gifted to Harry Truman by a Saudi prince and the Iranian shah—all stolen from his presidential library in 1978. There’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s official White House portrait. It went missing in a move. And there’s a batch of Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams that just up and vanished.

Yockelson, the investigative archivist for the United States’ National Archives, is unlikely to find any of these priceless historical treasures in a fluorescent-lit hall on the Maryland state fairgrounds. The annual Maryland Antique Arms Show brings together hundreds of dealers peddling all types of military antiques and ephemera. There, men toting bayonets for sale peruse table after table of old uniforms, yellowed discharge papers, and bowls of ammunition. Yockelson attends shows like this two or three times a year, in addition to scouring online auctions and following tips, on the hunt for lost Americana that rightfully belongs to the U.S. government.

So begins Nina Strochlic’s fascinating story on trying to track down archival thefts from the U.S. National Archives. You may read the entire Atlas Obscura piece here.

The Impossible, Necessary History of the Hymnal

13 Aug

Phillips, The Hymnal

Historian Chris Gehrz provides a fascinating review of a new book, The Hymnal, by Christopher N. Phillips. You may read the review here.

America is losing its memory

8 May

America is losing its memory. The National Archives and Records Administration is in a budget crisis. More than a resource for historians or museum of founding documents, NARA stands at the heart of American democracy. It keeps the accounts of our struggles and triumphs, allows the people to learn what their government has done and is doing, and maintains records that fill in family histories. Genealogy researchers depend on it, as do journalists filing Freedom of Information Act requests. If Congress doesn’t save it, we all will suffer.

So begins historian T.J. Stiles’ plea for more funding for the National Archives. (Full disclosure: I love Stiles’ books; I highly recommend them as outstanding histories, and great reads.) You may read his entire opinion piece here.

Inside the Belgian Library That Tore Itself Apart

18 Feb

This library wasn't meant to be so empty.

IN THE MID-1960S, THERE WERE no Belgians attending Belgium’s oldest university. Founded in 1425, the institution—known in French as the Université catholique de Louvain and in Dutch as the Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven—was no longer viable despite its rich legacy, and its national symbolic value. As in many places in the country, French speakers, known as Walloons, had long enjoyed special status at the institution, controlling its administration despite Leuven’s location in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders. Fed up, the Flemish students demanded that the university rectify historic inequities and finally prioritize its Dutch-speaking majority.

The institution had torn apart at its factional seams, and nothing less than a split down the middle would suffice. This division would ultimately require the construction of a new town, Louvain-la-Neuve (literally “New Leuven” in French) and a new campus just across the border, only about 40 minutes’ drive away. But dividing the library’s collection—splitting an expression of a unified culture, a shared history—may have been harder than building a new city.

So begins Matthew Taub’s fascinating story of the division of a library and a university. You may read the entire Atlas Obscura story here.

On Display: The 1968 San Francisco State Student Strike

18 Dec

San Francisco State University (then San Francisco State College) was uniquely situated to address racial inequities during the 1960s. In the early 1960s, several SF State students traveled to the South to participate in the Freedom Rides in order to desegregate interstate travel. And in October 1962, a wooden Speaker’s Platform was built on campus which became the first college-sanctioned free speech platform in the nation. Tensions grew on campus through the mid-1960s as a coalition of student groups protested the releasing of student information to the Selective Service Office and anti-black animus that resulted in the beating of black students on campus. Students felt the campus administrators were racist and ignoring inequalities readily apparent on campus. Using the free speech platform, students developed an innovative Third World curriculum through an ambitious experimental college as they developed networks for civic engagement in underrepresented neighborhoods beginning in 1966. In 1968, the suspension of an English Instructor (and Black Panther Minister of Education) George Mason Murray set off the longest college strike in American history. After changes in the school’s president, activism from students and faculty, and the ultimate closure of the campus and numerous campus demonstrations, the coalition of the Third World Liberation Front and the Black Students Union, supported by the Students for a Democratic Society, issued demands seeking a resolution to the strike. The result was the creation of one of the nation’s first Black studies curriculum and Black Studies Departments, as well as the School of Ethnic Studies.

It is not surprising that the longest college strike in American history would unfold at SF State throughout 1968 as students from different ethnic backgrounds came together to fight for educational self-determination and curriculum relevant to their lives.

So begins Meredith Eliassen’s post at the Organization of American Historian’s Process blog about a new online archives collection. You may read the entire post, with links, here.

17 Dec

December is a month of holidays and festivities that bring families and friends together to celebrate their good fortune and look forward to the year ahead. For the enslaved couple William and Ellen Craft, the month of December 1848 promised more reason to celebrate than any they’d ever experienced. The potential was uncertain, however, and fraught with peril. After years of careful planning and preparation, this was the optimal time, they decided, to implement their plan to gain their freedom.

A search of all of the documents in the Library of Congress would be unlikely to yield a scheme for freedom more intriguing and daring than the Christmas escape strategy of the Crafts. Even though theirs is heralded as one of the most brilliant escapes from slavery in American history, it’s far less well known than the exploits of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass or Josiah Henson.

The Crafts’ ingenious plan is documented in their 1860 narrative, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery.” The Library holds four different reprints of the account.

So begins an intriguing Library of Congress post by Lavonda Kay Broadnax. You may read the entire post here.

Papers of President Theodore Roosevelt Now Online

17 Oct

The Library of Congress is announcing that the Theodore Roosevelt Papers are now online. You may read the entire announcement here.

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