Today I'm very excited to have K. Hollan Van Zandt here for a guest post on A Bookish Affair.
Why write anything down? Why keep houses of scrolls and books? Why does this interest us as human beings? How long have we been doing this?
When it comes to the role of libraries in the past, we have to start where it all begins: ancient Sumer.
The very first evidence of writing we have is actually a stone receipt. It’s a receipt for sale of land, a cow, several goats and some chickens. (Very Fred Flintstone, for those of us who grew up in those cartoon years.)
The next to oldest piece of writing that we have- we’re talking cuneiform on clay the size of your fist, is a writing lesson. One line from the teacher, the next from the student copying the lines.
So we weren’t particularly poetic for a few hundred years, it seems, but then along comes The Hymn to Inanna (the Sumerian goddess of war, love and thresholds), written by a priestess named Enheduanna. This is an epic poem, and lengthy, beautifully penned all the way back in 2300 B.C. So there was some devotion, some beauty beginning to flow onto the page.
As you can imagine, once you start to have some things written down, you begin to look for a place to keep the records. Up until Roman times it was all mixed in together, but then we get the appearance of two separate buildings: the tabularium and the library.
The receipts and records --who is a slave, who bought a house, who died, who was born-- these all move to the tabularium where the scribes keep the city records. The census. That sort of thing.
And everything else moves into libraries. There were libraries all over the Roman and Hellenistic world. I can only speak to the Mediterranean, because that’s my area of study, but certainly in India and China writing and records were also appearing.
What becomes elegant about libraries is the role the librarians (and philosophers) played in society. These caretakers of knowledge often wore their hair long as a status symbol showing they didn’t have to toil in the fields. They were free for a life of contemplation, which was the envy of every peasant.
When you have a life of hard work – and work was hard back then, everything was labor -- there is simply no time for contemplating anything. There are children to be brought up, meals to make, fields to plow, seeds to sow, cities to erect... no time for thinking about the greater mysteries of the world.
But once libraries appeared, and specifically the Great Library of Alexandria (these were often funded out of the pockets of the city itself or the royalty who wanted to be certain their city had a library) there were salaries now for the most suited individuals to the life of scrolls and writings, astronomy, mathematics, science and all the rest.
Very telling is that the word “scholar” is directly related to the word “leisure”. To be educated was a life of leisure.
The Great Library of Alexandria, founded about three hundred years before Christ, was actually more like a university. There were classes going on all the time. There were wings devoted to medicine and literature. Each scribe was fluent in at least three or four languages including Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. Each scribe found a place of talent and devoted his or her entire life to that discipline.
Hypatia of Alexandria, who is a major character in my novel, Written in the Ashes, interested me because first, she was a woman, and second, she was raised inside the Great Library by her father, Theon, a mathematician, who taught her all he knew. From what we know they even worked side by side on translating the Almagest.
To be a librarian, a teacher, a philosopher was a high honor. These individuals were contributing massively to society—for instance Archimedes’ many inventions like the lever. There were leaps being made in seafaring because of advances in the instrumentation that were coming out of the Great Library. In fact, the entire science of keeping time pretty much started in Egypt and is where
we got the concept of hours and minutes.
The most decorated librarians got to hang out with kings, magistrates, emperors and senators. They dined well. They often traveled. And most importantly, something we often overlook today, they were literate. They could read and write. So therefore, they were able to bridge nations and history and make connections that the illiterate among society couldn’t even dream of.
The threads of society that we don’t even think about today, the underpinnings, all began there. For instance Eratosthenes, a name that isn’t well known by any stretch, invented the term “geography” and also the system of latitude and longitude, as well as calculating the circumference of the planet, all at a time when the technology was still sophisticated hand tools. It’s awe inspiring, and I
feel could never be duplicated today.
Time to dream, to think, to contemplate was born in libraries. In honor of all they have contributed to society, I dedicated my book to the librarians of the world, then and now.
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