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Ancient Libraries: 200s BCE

Let's examine the well-known Libraries of Alexandria, royal libraries, and libricide in China.

Legend says that upon seeing the library of Ashurbanipal, Alexander the Great was inspired to create a library that combined all the works of the nations he conquered and translate them into Greek. Alexander died before he saw his universal library built, but his successor Ptolemy I began the library in the new Hellenic city that Alexander founded called Alexandria around 306 BCE. His son Ptolemy II continued the project.

According to Kesting (1978), what distinguished the Library of Alexandria from earlier libraries like Ashurbanipal was the focus on research inspired by Aristotlian foundations. The Royal Library of the Mouseion introduced the comprehensive academic research approach. The Libraries of Alexandria went

"beyond the mere passive instinct to preserve, which was the primary moving force of the earliest collectors of archival and library texts, and beyond the mere formal aspects of domestic organisation. The Library spontaneously become the very heart of cultural and academic activity in a society imbue with the questioning spirt of the Greek philosophers and with the creative urge of the Greek dramatists and epic, and lyric writers (Kesting, 1978, 7).

Libraries of Alexandria
Alexandria, Egypt

Alexandria Wikimedia Commons PDA student of Aristotle, Demetrius of Phaleron is said to have begun the initial planning of the site including the academy and accompanying library. The Ptolemaic Mouseion Academy served the community of scholars as their living quarters. It was able to attract scholars by providing free room, board, servants, and salaries provided through an endowment by Ptolemy I. Scholars included Archimedes, Aristophane, Eratosthenes, Euclid, Herophilus, Strabo, and Zenodotus. It began as an intellectual center for the Ptolemaic dynasty, but later fell under the rule of the Roman emperors. The scholars were offered only limited intellectual freedom and restricted to the palace complex.

The exact layout for the complex is unknown. However, the academy building and the library were connecting by pathways and courtyards. The library held between 400,000 and 700,000 scrolls with rooms for acquisitions and cataloguing.

The Main Library and the Branch Library

At the time of Ptolemy III a second library housed in the Serapeum at the Temple of Serapis. Containing more than 42,000 copies of literary works intended for the general public, the library was available to people who would not have access to the Mouseion grounds. It can be viewed as a branch library because the same staff and policies served both institutions. The library also had a teaching tradition. According to Kesting (1978, 7), "these two libraries may be said to have represented the research and undergraduate components of the modern university library prototype."

Kesting (1978, 7) stresses that the library system contained many of the elements of formal institutions that were established during the Middle Ages.

"a) Universality in scope of scientific enquiry;
b) The merging of the complementary function of research (which innovates) and of teaching (which reinforces tradition);
c) The emphasis of the study of the liberal arts;
d) Systematic professional training (in the case of Alexandria confined to theology, but which was to be echoed in the early prominence of medical and legal studies in mediaeval universities);
e) A de facto charted status within the community of study at a recognised institution of learning."


The library was directed by a series of chief librarians. Appointed by the royal court and later the emperor, the library director was in charge of collection development, staffing, and maintenance. In addition, he was often called upon as a tutor for the royal children as well as a priest.

Collection Development

The library was directed to collect all the books of the world from cookbooks and poetry to the epics. They acquired high quality items including the best, most authoritative original works. Any works not written in Greek were translated.

Acquisitions were made three ways.

First, materials were stolen or confiscated. For instance, the Ptolemies would board ships in harbor, then seize their books and make copies. A copy rather than the original would be returned to the owner.

Second, materials were borrowed and copied. According to Casson (2001), the library borrowed official versions of works by Aeshylus, Sophocles, and Euripides from Athens. Millions of dollars was paid in collateral for their return. However after making high-quality copies, the originals were kept and the copies returned to Athens. The library was happy to forfeit the bond.

Third, materials were purchased. Although some items were purchased from booksellers, the library also forced the sale of books from cities in exchanges for food.

The library included works from Artistotle's Peripatetic School in Athens including works by Artistotle himself.

Their mission was to obtain a copy of every book ever written.


In order for a library of this size to be useful, a system was necessary for the physical placement of the materials. Zenodotus of Ephesus was the first recorded librarian. He developed a rudimentary organizational system involving the placement of texts in rooms based on subject matter. After an inventory of materials, he created three major categories. Literary works, history texts, and Ptolemaic literature were found in the first category. The second category consisted of works used to create standardized works, letters, and maps. Finally, works in foreign languages. The works were then organized alphabetically by the first letter of the author's name. Zenodotus was the first librarian known to use alphabetic organization. Tags were placed at the end of each scroll containing the work's author, title, and subject. Although other systems used marks or tags, this was the first systematic use of metadata.


Callimachus of Cyrene was never the chief librarian, but he is credited with designing the first cataloging system based on alphabetical subject classification. Considered to be the first library cataloger, his system was used throughout the Roman Empire. Focusing on the first of Zenodotus' categories, he developed a system based on the major areas of literature, then within these areas he alphabetized based on the author's name. The organization included six main divisions of poetry (epic, elegy, iambics, melodrama, tragedy, and comedy) and five in prose (history, rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, and law) (Milkaw & Leyh, 1963).

Around 245 BCE, Callimachus produced the Pinakes as a finding aid. Including 120 volumes, it's the first known bibliography survey that lists, categorizes, and identifies a library collection. Works are listed alphabetically by author and genre. Each entry contains information we could call metadata today including the title, first line of the work, summary of contents, and number of lines. It also included the author's name, birthplace, father's name, teachers, educational background, and an author note containing a brief biography and list of the author's publications. Other information might also be included such as the original of the text. The Pinakes included holdings in both the main library and the Serapeum, but it didn't cover the entire contents of the library.

Successors to Callimachus extended the work. Eratosthenes of Cyrene compiled his "tetagmenos epi teis megaleis bibliothekeis" or scheme of the great bookshelves around 235BCE and Aristophanes of Byzantium updated or extended the Pinakes around 195BCE.


Attempts to destroy the library can be found in various accounts over a 600 year period. From wars to riots, these attacks reflect the many reasons that libraries throughout history have met with destruction.

In 48 BCE the armies of Julius Caesar caused fires to spread through the city. Then, in 272 CE Emperor Aurelian attacked the city and badly damaged the library. Religious riots in 391 CE caused damage to the pagan temples and library, and more of the library was destroyed when violence broke out between Jews and Christians in 415 CE. The Muslim conquest of 642 CE also took it toll.

In addition to the many direct attacks, the library also experienced internal and external bureaucratic problems from lack of funding to military actions.

Read Casson (2001, 31-47).

Pergamon Library
Pergamon, Turkey (now Bergama, Turkey)

The Attalid dynasty turned Pergamon into a kingdom between 282 BCE and 133 BCE. The dynasty was known for it's patronage of the arts and education. Attalus I amassed a huge private collection of paintings and sculptures. Attalus II (160-139) gave large sums of money to support teachers of the citizens.

The library was the major contribution to culture. Home of over 200,000 volumes, the library was built during the rule of Emenes II between 197 BCE and 159 BCE. After Alexandria, it's considered the best Hellenistic library. Located at the northern end of the Acropolis square, it possessed a large reading room lined with shelves. Three or four smaller rooms contained the rolls with open doors so light could shine in. These rooms would have contained wooden shelves for holding rolls. Vitruvious stated that it was "built for the delight of the world at large." This may indicate that it was a public library, however it's much more likely that the library was only open to select scholars.

Like Alexandria, a school of scholars developed. Crates of Mallus founded the school of grammar and may have been the head of the library at some point. His ideas clashed with those of scholars at Alexandria increasing the rivalry between the Great libraries. One of Crates' notable accomplishments was the invention of a globe representing the Earth.

A set of pinake listing the libraries holdings was drawn up, but the format is uncertain. It may have followed Callimachus' methods.

Pergamon Plan Wikimedia Commons PD

The image above shows a floorplan including the location of the library.

According to legend, Marcus Antonius gave Cleopatra all of the volumes for the Library of Alexandria as a wedding present. Others say the donation was because of the damage caused by Julius Caesar to the Library of Alexandria. However no list of holdings exists as evidence of the size of the collection or what was given away.

In 133 BCE the Roman Republic took control and later the Ottoman Empire. The ruins of the library can be used today.


Legend indicates that Ptolemy stopped the export of papyrus because of the rivalry between the Library of Alexandria and the Pergamon Library. According to Casson (2001), Ptolemy V may even have thrown Aristophanes of Byzantium into prison based on a rumor that he was considering a position at Pergamon.

When the Ptolemies stopped exporting papyrus, they invented a new substance to use in codices called pergamum or parchment. The predecessor of paper, the parchment was made of a thin sheet of sheep or goat skin. Although it existed before this time period, the library of Pergamon made parchment an important element of their library.


High humidity was a problem in Pergamon. Space was left between the outer walls and the shelves to allow for circulation and prevent mold. Light was admitted to the room by side windows with some type of shelter against rain and dust.


Although other libraries may have had statue and other decoration, the Pergamon Library is known to have a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom in the main reading room.

Pergamon Flickr FTronchin

The photo above shows a view of the library ruins at Pergamon (F. Tronchin, Flickr).

Royal Libraries

At the same time libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon were thriving, other libraries were emerging. Many of these libraries were established by royalty for their personal use.

Royal Library of Antioch
Antioch, Syria (Modern day Antakya, Turkey)

Around 221BCE, Euphorion of Chalcis accepted the challenge of forming a royal library at Antioch for Antiochus III. Euphorion was known as a scholar and author, so he was a logical choice for librarian. Unfortunately, we know very little about the role these librarians played in creating and maintaining their collections.

The Role of Librarian

During the 3rd century BCE, scholars were increasingly being asked to serve in the role of librarian.

Book Burning

While libraries were flourishing in the West, they were being burned in the East. The act of burning books also known as biblioclasm or libricide, as a means of controlling information can be seen throughout history.

Learn more about book burning at Wikipedia.

Quin Shi Huang, Wikimedia PDChin (Qin) Dynasty Library

Lasting just fourteen years, the Ch'in dynasty (221 BCE-207 BCE) left a lasting impact. China is named for this empire that brought unification as well as destruction. The government ordered the burning of all ancient books. The only books preserved were those of practical use such as agriculture, war, and medicine. The government sought to control access to all information. Those who did not adhere to these rules were killed or sent to build the Great Wall.

The image on the right shows Qin Shi Huang, the emperor.

This event (213B CE-206 BCE) is known as the "burning of book and burying of scholars". Beginning in 213 BCE, all works of the Hundred Schools of Thought, except those sanctioned by the government were burned. In addition more than 460 scholars in the capital were buried alive.

Although many books were destroyed, many individuals sealed books in the walls of their homes for safe keeping.

The destruction of books didn't mean an end to literacy. The goal of the government was to control information. As such a new system of writing was established and people were encouraged to read materials that promoted the ideals of the government.

Han Dynasty Imperial Library

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) is considered a golden age in Chinese history. Confucianism was revived and reading the classics was once again permitted. According to Lerner (1999), a library was established to collect officially approved versions of the Classics. Rewards were given to those who donated books to the collection.


Blum, R. (1991). The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Canfora, L. (1990). The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World. University of California Press.

Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Kesting, J. G. (May 17, 1978). Qumram and the Quest for Modern Librarianship. University of Cape Town. New Series No. 52.

MacLeod, R., ed. (2004). The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World. I.B. Tauris & Co.

Milkaw, Fritz & Leyh, Georg (1963). Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries. Catholic University of America. Translated by Mary Helene Pages.

Phillips, Heather (2010). The Great Library of Alexandria? Library Philosophy and Practice. Available: http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~mbolin/phillips.htm

Raven, J., Ed. (2004). Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections since Antiquity. MacMillan.

Staikos, K. (2000). The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. Oak Knoll Press.

Thompson, J.W. (1940). Ancient Libraries. University of California Press.

Witty, F.J., (July 1973). The other Pinakes and reference works of Callimachus. The Library Quarterly, 43(3), 237.

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