Library Nerdvana: Or, Library Architectural History

This fall I’m diving into my  budding love of library architecture by taking a seminar on the history of library architecture at the Newberry Library here in Chicago:

This is the first time the Newberry is running this particular seminar, which is being taught by Diane Dillon. It’s part of their 125th anniversary celebration. If you live in the Chicago area and haven’t taken an adult education seminar from the Newberry I highly recommend you do! It’s been years since I’ve taken a seminar there, but when I saw this one listed in their fall offerings I immediately knew it was for me.
I won’t recap our sessions, but I thought it would be fun to share a little something from each time period that we cover.

First up are libraries left on earth by aliens.

Just kidding.

King Ashurbanipal (source)

First up is ancient libraries. We discussed a half dozen or so seminal ancient libraries, from King Ashurbanipal’s library to Roman libraries to the very beginnings of the Vatican library. Among other things, we looked at floor plans, storage techniques for various types of texts, how scrolls were read, and various activities for which libraries were used, as well as who used them.

In ancient times temples and palaces were the repositories of knowledge. There were no free standing libraries as we think of them today. One of the earliest is the records room of King Ashurbanipal, located in modern Iraq, which dates to 640 BCE. This library contained mainly clay tablets. Among it’s treasures was The Epic of Gilgamesh, which I highly recommend. Legend has it that upon seeing Ashurbanipal’s library Alexander the Great decided to create his own library.
Scholars in the Library of Alexandria (source)

Hence, the Library of Alexandria, which became a major center of scholarship and learning from the third century until 30 BCE. Not that Alexander the Great saw his great library built in his life-time, but it was his vision that got the ball rolling. The Library of Alexandria was located within the palace complex and it included not only texts, mainly papyrus scrolls, but also laboratories to study subjects like anatomy and astronomy.

The Library of Alexandria had an acquisitions department. An acquisitions department with clout: the Ptolomaic Dysnasty, who ruled at the time, really wanted to accumulate world-wide knowledge of every kind and a decree was passed that required all visitors entering Alexandria, including ships landing in her ports, to surrender any and all written texts in their possession. Scribes from the library would copy the information, keep the original, and give the copy back to the “owner.”

There were actually two libraries at Alexandria. There’s also a library-related rumor about Anthony’s wedding present to Cleopatra, but you’ll have to look that up on your own.

Mural in Blackstone Library, CT (source)

Which leads us to the Library at Pergamum, located in modern day Turkey. Pergamum was an important library to ancient scholars. Plutarch mentions it. At the time most texts were written on papyrus, which was made in Alexandria. The scribes in Pergamum had to order their papyrus from Alexandria.

But remember how the Ptolomaic Dynasty wanted their library to be THE center for knowledge? Putting an end to any healthy competition between the two libraries, the order came down to simply stop exporting papyrus to Pergamum. Thankfully, the King of Pergamum was not deterred and demanded that a suitable alternative to papyrus scrolls be found. His team came up with parchment paper. Don’t think of modern day baking sheets or calligraphy parchment. Parchment “paper” was made out of animal hide that had been thinned, usually from goat or sheep.

The invention of parchment paper radically expanded the spread of knowledge within the Roman Empire. We can thank the Ptolomaic Dynasty for their greed and selfishness and the team in Pergamum for not giving up in their search for an alternative to papyrus. As Plato said, necessity is the mother of all invention.

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