Tag Archives: libraries

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.

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.

Being a Victorian Librarian Was Oh-So-Dangerous

9 Aug

Dangerous Librarians

Quick, think of a job that’s hard on your health. Librarian Rosalee McReynolds writes that in the late nineteenth century, a common response might have been: librarian.

So begins Livia Gershon’s concise historical piece at JSTOR on the health of women librarians in the late nineteenth century. You may read the entire post here.

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

14 Jun

Neil Gaiman

A British author talks about why reading and libraries are important even in this Digital Age. Read The Guardian’s post of Neil Gaiman’s talk here.

Every Library Has a Story to Tell

26 Apr

What secrets does a library hold?

A LIBRARY IS, AT ITS most essential, a space that holds a collection of books. A dedicated room or building is not technically necessary. In his Book of Book Lists, recently released in the United States, author Alex Johnson offers examples of portable libraries—“sturdy wooden cases” of books and magazines that “were passed between lighthouses around the United States,” for instance. He includes the library Robert Falcon Scott took on board the Discovery in 1901, when the ship left for Antarctica, with a catalogue that specified which cabin a volume could be found in. Napoleon, he writes, had a traveling collection of French classics that was ported with him to war. It included five volumes of Voltaire’s plays and Montesquieu’s work on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.

But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.

So begins Sarah Laskow’s reflections on 3 new books about book collections. You may read the rest of her Atlas Obscura post here.

Go Medieval by Attaching a Book to Your Belt

23 Apr

A girdle book held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

GIRDLE BOOKS HAD TO BE small, and they had to be light. From the bottom edges of their bindings extended an length of leather, usually gathered into a knot at the end. This extension of the cover could be used to carry the book like a purse or could be tucked into a girdle or belt. To read, the owner wouldn’t even have to detach the book; when taken up, the book would be oriented correctly, just as if it had been pulled from a shelf.

So begins Sarah Laskow’s fascinating report on girdle books. You may read the rest of her Atlas Obscura piece here.

Stanley Cushing: I Curated Rare Books for a 200-Year-Old Library

21 Feb

Cushing delivering a rare book talk.

The Boston Athenaeum—a 211-year-old independent library in the center of Beacon Hill—is home to about 150,000 rare books. Some are old, and some are brand new. Some are huge, and some are tiny. Some are made of lead, some are made of shredded army uniforms, and one is, famously, made of human skin. Until recently, Stanley Ellis Cushing was in charge of all of them.

So begins Cara Giaimo’s interview with the recently-retired curator at the Boston Athenaeum. You may read her entire interview at Atlas Obscura here.

TEACHING THE ART OF READING IN THE DIGITAL ERA

12 Feb

PacificStandard_Hugo&Marie_MVM_Teaching_6,5x4,5_RGB

Perhaps the oddest aspect of reading is that, for all the pleasures of the text, we must be taught to do it. Recognizing symbols and signs, as well as the ability to assign them meaning, might be innate to the human brain, but directing these abilities to follow words on the page—a relatively new skill in human history—requires instruction. Like a child learning to ride a bike without training wheels, the magical moment comes when the parent lets go and the child pedals off—and keeps going. “The most significant kind of learning,” writes the Stanford University reading specialist Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” The wonder of experiencing a novel (or the sensation of coasting on two wheels) can be habit-forming.

So notes James McWilliams in a report at the Pacific Standard. You may read his entire report on reading in the Digital Age here.

A Peek at Famous Readers’ Borrowing Records From a Private New York Library

7 Feb

The Reference Desk at the library.

The New York Society Library, a subscription library now located in a prim townhouse on East 79th Street, has been squirreling books away since 1754. Today the collection occupies nine stacks, and like any library, it can be bit overwhelming if you don’t know what to read. But the Library’s archive offers an unusual book trail to follow: the borrowing histories of its readers past.

So begins Erin Schriener’s fascinating post at Atlas Obscura on the New York Society Library. You may read the entire post here.

 

The Library of Congress rethinks archiving Twitter

3 Jan

In 2010, Twitter bestowed its entire archive of public tweets on the Library of Congress, which the library called “an exciting and groundbreaking acquisition.” The collection began on March 21, 2006, when the company’s co-founder and C.E.O., Jack Dorsey, typed “just setting up my twttr,” and has been expanding significantly each day since (approximately six thousand public tweets are now posted every second). Private and deleted tweets are not included, and neither are images or embedded videos. Everything else, though, is immediately churned into an ever-thickening text archive, to be preserved by the library for all of eternity.

So begins Amanda Petrusich’s New Yorker reflection on the Library of Congress and archiving Twitter. You may read the rest of the reflection here.

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