Library History: Sands of Timbuktu


What can be more interesting to a reader than the history of reading and libraries? (OK, maybe you’re more interested in the latest Jonathan Franzen or Janet Evanovich. But read on.)

Ancient Library Practices

Parchment got its name from the city of Pergamon, site of one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world. Its rival was the Great Library at Alexandria, which used to demand that every ship docking in the harbor turn over its books to be copied--and then return the copies instead of the originals. Ancient Chinese books were written on bamboo, but at the Imperial University, stone steles were erected with editions of the Five Classics and the Analects of Confucius, from which copies could be made by rubbing ink on paper.

Dewey Decimal Inspiration

Melvil Dewey got the idea for his Dewey Decimal System during a long sermon one Sunday. (Maybe the minister had taken his text from Ex. 18:25: And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.) Dewey, who shortened his first name from Melville because he was an orthographic reform enthusiast, was quite a character.

Libraries in the ancient world by Lionel CassonEvidence of Written Traditions

Modern scholars, archivists, and preservationists have begun to rescue the manuscripts of Timbuktu, which was a thriving Islamic university town 500 years ago, founding local libraries to house them. These manuscripts are starting to revise the history of sub-Saharan Africa, widely thought until recently to have no written tradition.

I can recommend the following materials from the San Mateo County Library.

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson Casson was a professor of classics at NYU; his work is an interesting survey of libraries from the ancient Near East to Medieval Europe.

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. Battles is a gifted writer, and his book is a real pleasure to read. It ranges from ancient history to musings on Jonathan Swift (the chapter on “The Battle of the Books” perhaps a play on his own name), as well as book burnings and rescues in occupied Europe and Bosnia.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel.  Manguel’s newest. He starts with the library at his converted presbytery in France, and goes on to make his own connections with libraries in his boyhood, in history, in imagination, in war-torn nations and beyond. 

The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age by Fred Lerner.  In this more traditional history, Lerner covers libraries in “the Orient” and the Islamic world as well as those in the West.

Books On Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History by Lucien X. Polastron; translated by Jon E. Graham. Polastron, a specialist in Arab and Chinese studies (especially calligraphy and paper) who lives in Paris, discusses the destruction of libraries from Babylon to Qing dynasty China, from Alexandria to the recent invasion of Iraq. He also voices concern about the digitalization of books and its consequences. The writing, or perhaps the translation, is a bit awkward.

From Our Online Databases

“Decaying Manuscripts Reveal Africa’s Literate History.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 49.02 (2002). General OneFile. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.

Hammer, Joshua. “The Treasures of Timbuktu.” Smithsonian Dec. 2006:46+. General OneFile. Web. 23 Sept. 2010.

Other Favorites?

Do you have any suggestions for further reading?

Author Bio:

Vaughn Harrison works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile. Her reading interests include archaeology and mysteries, among other things.

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