Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson

Literacy, publishing, and book collecting in early Western civilization
Libraries in the Ancient World, published in 2001, provides a concise but comprehensive summary of the history of libraries, both private collections and public institutions, from the birth of writing to the dawn of the Middle Ages. Author Lionel Casson was a professor of classical studies at New York University and a winner of the American Institute of Archaeology’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement. As one would expect from a classicist, the “ancient world” referred to in the title lies strictly within the cradle of Western civilization—Greece, the Roman Empire, Egypt, and Mesopotamia—only venturing as far east as Iraq.

Concrete archaeological evidence of ancient libraries is unfortunately very scanty. Thanks to the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum is the one notable exception of an ancient Roman library found preserved intact and in situ, scrolls and all. Portions of ancient library buildings have survived, but their shelves of wood and books of papyrus and parchment have long since disappeared or rotted away. Casson uses these architectural remnants to reconstruct the layouts of ancient public libraries, giving the reader a vivid glimpse into the environments where scholars of ancient Greece and Rome consulted and copied handwritten scrolls. Most of the information we have on ancient libraries, however, comes from references in ancient texts. Though only a fraction of the ancient world’s books have survived, Casson, with an encyclopedic knowledge of extant classical manuscripts, is able to draw a wealth of fascinating detail from the writings of ancient authors.

Casson begins with the origin of libraries in the ancient Near East, when Sumerian cuneiform writing was incised into clay tablets, and then proceeds to Greece and Rome. He covers all the famous libraries one would expect to find in a book on this subject, such as the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh and the great Greek library of Alexandria, but he also discusses lesser-known libraries and privately held collections. The reader gets a thorough education in how libraries were formed, funded, and managed, how they acquired their collections, and how librarians catalogued those collections. Casson expands the scope of the book beyond libraries, however, to cover broader issues of book culture in the ancient literary world. The reader learns about all aspects of the classical book trade, including the materials and methods of book construction, how books were copied and disseminated (since “publishing” as we know it did not really exist), and the rise and role of the bookselling profession. Using statistical and ancient anecdotal evidence, Casson charts the development of writing from a utilitarian to a literary form of expression, the spread of literacy throughout the Greco-Roman world, and the gradual change in format from the scroll to the codex (the book with pages, as we know it today). He even outlines a sort of ancient bestseller list of those books likely to have been the most popular and widely stocked.

Libraries in the Ancient World is very accessible to general readers. It could easily be used as a supplemental text in any undergraduate course, not just in classics or archaeology but also in library science or literature. So as not to intimidate a general audience, the publisher has omitted in-text citation numbers and relegates Casson’s notes and sources to the back of the book, where they are recorded in a supposedly user-friendly nonacademic format that higher-level readers will likely find inhospitable. Nevertheless, anyone interested in rare books or the literary origins of Western civilization will enjoy Casson’s fascinating revelations on ancient bibliographic history.

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