Book Excerpt

THE GREAT LIBRARIES: FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE RENAISSANCE. Konstantinos Sp m. Staikos.

THE GREAT LIBRARIES: FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE RENAISSANCE.

New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000. 9.5 x 13 inches. hardcover, dust jacket. 600 pages. First edition in English, second impression. This monumental work chronicles the development of the library from 300 B.C. to 1600 A.D. Beginning with the clay-tablet libraries of the ancient Sumerian and Assyro-Babylonian empires, to those inspired by the Italian Renaissance, Mr. Staikos reveals the majesty of Western literature within these great depositories of human knowledge. Using over 400 illustrations... READ MORE

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Author’s Introduction

The scope of this book may be summed up under three main headings. First, it analyses the motives that prompted the peoples of the Mediterranean and the West to establish and maintain libraries, that is to say special buildings or parts of buildings designated as repositories of their oral traditions, their literary works and their accumulated knowledge in every branch of human learning, recorded on tablets or in books, from 3000 b.c. to the beginning of the sixteenth century a.d. Secondly, it outlines the development of libraries through the ages and the ways in which their evolution was affected by intellectual trends and historical circumstances in general. Thirdly, it examines the factors that influenced not only the spread of libraries through the civilized world but also their design and layout, by which I mean their furniture and fittings as well as their overall architectural style. Two points should be made clear at the outset: archives are deliberately excluded except in the chapter on Mesopotamia, where no clear-cut dividing line can be drawn between archival and literary collections; and there are no chapters on Jewish libraries or those in Persia and the Islamic world, which I hope to cover in a separate book.

Bibliotheke is a Greek word which, as Pompeius Festus informs us, was used by both the Greeks and the Romans to denote either a large collection of books or a room or building in which books were kept. The Sumerians spoke of a ‘House of Tablets’ and the Egyptians a ‘House of Books’ to mean a place used for the collection, classification and storage of written accounts of historical events (the happenings dealt to them by the gods, as Homer put it) and of their knowledge gained from the observation of nature, human conduct and human creative enterprise.

This accumulated knowledge – inscribed on commemorative stelae or tombstones, written in books made of papyrus, parchment or paper, or later printed on paper, and expressed in thousands of different languages and dialects – is the repository of all the fruits of human intellectual endeavour. Whether it is to be found in a humble fragment of an anonymous written work or in a sumptuous parchment codex, it is an irreplaceable part of an ageless book such as the Book of Mankind said to have been compiled by Hermes Trismegistus, which, according to the priests of Thoth, was composed of 36,525 separate books.

In the pages of this book, this ‘world library’ acquires an aura of the supernatural through the presentation of such a vast wealth of material. Every book ever written is shown to be connected with every other, so that all together form a colossal pyramid of knowledge founded on the work of some ordinary, anonymous person who piously sifted through the records left by his ancestors in order to study their achievements.

The first person in the history of books and libraries who encouraged his fellow-men to respect the words and deeds of their forefathers was Aristotle. If he takes the credit for according due recognition to the authors of creative work, it is because he was moved more by what he considered a moral imperative than by his thirst for knowledge as such. This led him to institute a roll of honour on which every author of work that contributes to the advancement of knowledge has a rightful place. Following Aristotle’s example, his beloved pupil Theophrastus set out to record the beliefs of earlier philosophers so as to ensure that their names would not be forgotten by posterity. Aristotle himself, rejecting the contention of Socrates and Plato that the written word does nothing to promote constructive dialogue, spent his life rereading and revising his own philosophical and scientific works: as Theophrastus remarked, ‘Reading begets corrections.’ What is more, on reading Aristotle’s work one has the feeling that he was trying to determine the parameters of a planned world beyond the grasp of the human mind, a world susceptible to any number of different interpretations.

This moral dimension of the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation obeys an unwritten universal law and is clearly discernible in the world of libraries, as it transcends time, national and cultural differences and peculiarities, longitude and latitude, social, political and economic conditions and even linguistic differences. It brings into being a worldwide company of men and women with a common interest, a company whose members are constantly multiplying, and thus it accords absolutely with Mallarmé’s dictum: ‘The world exists to end up in a book.’

Of the anonymous ‘Scribe of the House of Books’, who lived in Egypt around 2400 b.c., practically nothing is known, and the same is true of the author of the Creation epic written probably in the second millennium b.c. Nor do we know the identity of the scribes whom Assurbanipal sent out to the farthest corners of his empire to record any information that was not to be found in his extensive library at Nineveh. Very little is known even about Callimachus, the librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria and the only person of whom it is fair to say that he had almost all the books in the world through his hands and catalogued them. On the other hand, we do know that his catalogue entitled ‘Tables’ (Pinakes) long remained unsurpassed in its field: it laid the foundations of scientific librarianship and prompted Cicero to comment that happiness was to be found there (i.e. in Callimachus’s well-organized library) and nowhere else. We also know that the German humanist Johannes Cuno kept a collection of proofs from the press of Aldus Manutius, even including bad copies, as he believed that every written or printed document could be of use in seeking out philosophical truth. We know, too, that August, Duke of Saxony in the sixteenth century, collected in his library all the printed works available in Europe and spent much of his time writing the particulars of every book in his possession on the spine, in his own hand. Lastly, we know about the Emperor Maximilian II’s librarian Hugo Blotius, who, despite his extreme poverty, refused to betray the ‘sacred trust’ reposed in him and did all he could to ensure that the priceless treasures in his care should not be lost through carelessness, wear and tear or the overgenerous lending policy of the imperial court.

All these, from Assurbanipal to Aristotle, Tyrannio, Ptolemy, Cicero, Libanius, Tychicus, Photios, Cosimo de’ Medici, Palla Strozzi, Aldus Manutius and Johannes Cuno, and many others from all walks of life whose names are mentioned in the pages that follow, are the principal characters in the history of books and libraries: they are the members of the worldwide company mentioned above. The mystical bond that unites them was perfectly summed up by Léon Bloy (in L’âme de Napoléon) when he wrote that every human being has contributed by his or her work to the composition of a vast book of the history of mankind, in which commas and accents have the same value as chapters and clauses – a value that is hidden out of sight and can never be proved.

In conclusion, I wish to express my gratitude to Hélène Glykatzi-Ahrweiler for honouring me with a foreword to this volume. I must also put it on record that the English edition of this book would probably never have seen the light of day had it not been for the personal interest taken by Mr. Robert Fleck and Mr. J. Lewis von Hoelle, to whom I wish to express my gratitude once again. Their enterprise in publishing the fascinating story of libraries in the lingua franca of our time, thus making it accessible to readers all over the world at the dawn of the new millennium, is yet another example of the humanistic philosophy that makes books such an irreplaceable and inexhaustible source of knowledge. Lastly, I should like to express my enormous appreciation of the support given to me by Mr. Dimitri Contomina, a friend and now a comrade-in-arms in my writing projects and indeed in anything relating to cultural activities with a broader social dimension.

Konstantinos Sp. Staikos