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Librarians Through History


About 30,000 clay tablets found in ancient Mesopotamia date back more than 5,000 years. Archaelogists have uncovered papyrus scrolls from 1300-1200bc in the ancient Egyptian cities of Amarna and Thebes and thousands of clay tablets in the palace of King Sennacherib, Assyrian ruler from 704-681bc, at Nineveh, his capital city. More evidence turned up with the discovery of the personal collection of Sennacherib’s grandson, King Ashurbanipal.

Public and private libraries flourished through a well-established process: authors wrote on a variety of subjects, scriptoria or copy shops produced the books, and book dealers sold them.

The Great Library of Alexandria, a public library open to those with the proper scholarly and literary qualifications, founded about 300bc. When Egypt’s King Ptolemy I (305-282bc) asked, “How many scrolls do we have?”, Aristotle’s disciple Demetrius of Phalerum was on hand to answer with the latest count. After all, it was Demetrius who suggested setting up a universal library to hold copies of all the books in the world. Ptolemy and his successors wanted to understand the people under their rule and house Latin, Buddhist, Persian, Hebrew, and Egyptian works – translated into Greek.

Julius Caesar dreamed of establishing a public library in Rome, but his vision was cut short by his assassination. After Caesar’s death, Asinius Pollio acquired the necessary funds to make the dream a reality. The library was divided into two sections – one for Greek and one for Latin, serving as a model for subsequent Roman libraries. Great statues adorned the walls. Books, typically acquired through donations by authors and others, as well as through copying, were placed along the walls and readers consulted them in the middle of the room. This marked a distinct departure from the Greek model, where readers could only consult their books in an atrium away from the rest of the collection.

Founded circa 300bc, the Great Library of Alexandria was the most famed literary repository of the ancient world.


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While most modern libraries spend more time and money on collections than ornamentation, some institutions, such as the Library of Congress, still aspire to ancient standards of architectural splendor


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