Cara/Andrea here, just back from a fabulous research trip to London. Alas, timing was such that I missed meeting up with Jo and Nicola for a Wench Tea Party, but it was still an amazing experience—but more on my travels in my next blog!
Today I’m talking about libraries—I made a stop at my local branch the other day, intending to pick up a Harry Potter DVD and a biography on Casanova that I had read about. But as often happens when I walk by the display of new acquisitions, my gaze strayed and I found myself drawn to a lovely book entitled “The Library: An illustrated History.” How could I resist! (That’s a pic I took of the Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, not my local branch!)
Tucking it under my arm, I hurried to the check-out, grinning like a Bedlamite. One of the things I love about libraries (and bookstores, though they are a more expensive delight) is that serendipitous discovery, that unlooked-for treasure that sends a happy little thrill coursing down my spine. Now some of my friends find that shopping for clothes or shoes lifts their spirits. But me, I’d much rather have a good book than a pair of bargain Manolo Blanicks (okay, maybe I’d like the book AND the Blanicks.)
That said, “The Library: An Illustrated History,” by Stuart A. P. Murray and co-published by the American Library Association, proved to be a fun journey through the centuries, with plenty of offbeat digressions on the development of printing, paper, and the notable bibliophiles in history who were passionate about the written word.
According to the ALA, Americans made 1.3 billion visits to libraries in 2008, and borrowed over 2 billion items. Now, I happen to love little tidbits of information like this. But I have to confess, though there were many modern fact and figures, the most interesting part of the book for me were the anecdotes from history. So, without further ado, here are some of the things I learned . . .
“Library” derives from liber, the Latin word for book. The earliest known library was discovered during the 1970s in the ancient city Ebla, in modern-day Syria. Dating back to around 2500 BCE, it contained close to 20,000 clay tablets written in cuneiform, the earliest form of written language.
The Egyptians developed the first paper-like material (papyrus), which was used for elaborate scrolls. (The Greeks called papyrus rolls biblion, and the clay pots where they were stored bibliotheke—a place to keep books.) Using this new “technology” as well as clay tablets, they compiled the renowned ancient library at Alexandria. It is said that the library at Pergamum, in Asia Minor, began to rival Alexandria and so the Egyptians refused to export papyrus to them. Undaunted, Pergamum began to use calf, sheep and goat skin to write on—and so the Latin word for such material became pergamenum. Which explains our word “parchment.”
The Romans came up with the ‘codex’ form of book, in which scrolls were folded into “pages”. (Julius Caesar is credited with being the first to do so with his dispatches to Gaul.) This form evolved into cutting the folds, allowing for writing on both sides of the sheet. Stiff covers, usually of wood, were used to protect the pages, and thus we have the origins of our modern book. (Today, a codex refers to a manuscript from the Middle Ages or earlier.)
Theft of books has been a problem throughout the ages. In the Middle Ages, the monastic libraries took to chaining the most popular books to desks and lecterns. On my recent trip to Oxford, I visited the Bodleian Library and actually saw this in Duke Humfrey’s medieval library, a section that is still open to scholars today. (Nicola informed me that people who apply for research privileges must sign a pledge that includes a promises not to burn the books—the danger from candles were a huge threat in medieval times.) Because of the chains, the books must be shelved with the pages facing outward.
Book curses have also been employed (with questionable results.) One of my favorites is a Medieval Spanish warning: Him that stealeth or borroweth and returneth not this book, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck by palsy and all his members blasted. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails and let the flames of hell consume him forever. (Uhhh, the nickel a day fine for overdue books at my local library seems quite mild in comparison.)
For me, one of the most interesting early bibliophiles was Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. A scholar and politician, he compiled a spectacular collection of books, coins and antiquities during the mid-1500s, including the original manuscript of Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels, a seventh century illuminated manuscript from northern England.
The Cottonian Library used a unique system of cataloguing its books. Fourteen bus
ts of famous Romans were placed atop the various bookshelves and cabinets, and each item of the collection was listed with the letter of its Roman (N for Nero, etc.) a letter for the shelf, and then a Roman numeral for where on the shelf it sat. In 1702, Cotton’s grandson bequeathed the collection to the state, and in the 1750s, the British Museum and Library took charge of it. I find it endearing that the British Library still keeps Cotton’s original books organized by his “Roman” system. (The Dewey Decimal Classification didn’t come into being until 1876.)
Our Library of Congress was established in 1800, in the same act that authorized the transfer of government to Washington, DC. At first, it was, as the name implies, only for members of Congress. Thomas Jefferson, an avid bibliophile took a great interest in recommending acquisitions. When the nascent collection was burned to a crisp during the War of 1812, (Nicola, we forgive you Brits) Jefferson offered to sell Congress his private collection of 6,487 books (appraised at $23,950) to begin anew. Now, that’s one government expenditure that I heartily agree with!
One of the things that struck me as I read the book was the incredibly wide range of libraries there are around the world—from a traveling burro with a book sack slung over its back in rural Columbia to the dazzling splendor of the Vatican galleries, they come in all sizes and shapes. And some are artistic treasures in their own right. The contents are mind-boggling as well, from the broad scope of the New York Public Library to the innumerable arcane and eclectic specialized collections. Books, books, books—what a source of constant awe and delight! (here's my library . . . not quite as impressive as the sleek, modern new British Library shown above.)
Now that you heard my “show and tell”, have you made any fun “finds” at the library recently? And have you visited a library, famous or otherwise, that simply awed you? I’ll never forget my first visit to the old British Library, where I saw the original manuscript for Jane Eyre on display.