Thursday, May 24, 2012

Uncommon Clay

From the Batman TV series:
Robin: "Gosh, Batman, is there anything you don't know?"
Batman: "Oh yes, Robin. Several things, in fact."

My own nescience extends beyond the several, I’m afraid. One of my patches of cluelessness turns out to be proper academic citation, something I thought I had remembered from college. I had remembered, too. It’s just not done that way anymore. “MLA” citation is now preferred, and, when a neighbor asked me how to cite an internet source, I had no idea. (I looked it up on the internet.) There was no internet in my benighted undergrad days, just long hours amid library stacks with notebooks and 3 x 5 index cards. Today, students never leave their computer screens to do research papers unless their professors insist that they cite at least one paper-and-ink source. Having, in essence, a world-class library at one’s fingertips almost anywhere is a profound change, whether or not we make use of it.

Libraries once were rare and special. The earliest sizable one with which we are at all familiar is the palace library of the 7th century BC Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal, by his self-description, hardly seems a bookworm:

“I am a king, I am a lord, I am glorious, I am great, I am mighty, I have arisen, I am a chief, I am a prince, I am great and I am glorious Ashurbanipal, powerful king of Assyria, proclaimer of the moongod, worshipper of Anu, exalter of Yav, suppliant servant unyielding of the gods, conqueror of  the lands of his foes, a king mighty in battle, destroyer of cities and forests, chief over opponents, king of the four regions, expeller of foes, crusher of enemies, prince of a multitude of lands and of all kings, above all a prince who subdues the disobedient and who rules all the multitudes of men.”

Uh-huh. Yet, it seems that when he took time out from being great and glorious he liked nothing more than a good book, as is natural for someone who has attained “the highest level of the scribal art.” The old boy scored fairly high on self-esteem. Since the Assyrian texts were inscribed in clay tablets, the fire that destroyed the palace only hardened and preserved the library contents, to the delight of the 19th century archaeologists who found them. Tens of thousands of tablets make up an estimated 1500 distinct titles. They are as varied as a medical textbook (really more of a magic manual), a Sumerian/Akkadian translating dictionary, and the purely literary Epic of Gilgamesh.

While common riffraff weren’t allowed in the palace, Ashurbanipal did not hog the library all to himself. Nobles, scribes, court chroniclers, and even student scribes had access, which accounts for the threats on so many of the books that couldn’t possibly have been aimed at the king. “In the name of Marduk, do not rub out the text!” “He who carries off this tablet, may Shamash carry off his eyes!” My personal favorite: “He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water and rubs it until you cannot understand it, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad, Ishtar, Bel, Negal, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth, may all these curse him with a curse irrevocable, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives may they let his name and his seed be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth!” Talk about a library fine. There is a carrot, however, as well as a stick: “He who does not steal but returns the tablet to its proper place, may Ishtar regard him with joy.”

The most impressive library of the ancient world was, of course, the one in Egypt at Alexandria, founded about four hundred years after Ashurbanipal’s preeminence. With well over 400,000 texts, it was large even by today’s standards, and it formed a great research center for the scholars of the day.

The Romans were the first really to embrace libraries for the common folk. The one in the Forum of Trajan was typical and open to the general public. Greek and Latin literature (organized in familiar alphabetic order) were housed in separate rooms, each with reading tables in the center. The library had space for 20,000 scrolls. A tour book for the city of Rome from 350 AD lists 29 libraries among the buildings to see. The Romans built libraries in the provinces, too, sometimes combining them with public bath houses. It helps explain how so many erudite Latin authors (such as Martial and Apuleius) could have come from small towns in Gaul, Spain, or North Africa. Starting in the 100s AD, scrolls increasingly gave way to parchment codices, which had the shape of modern books. They were much more compact and were more convenient to use.

Then everything fell apart, at least in Europe. The Germans who swept over the western Empire and the Turks who conquered the eastern Empire weren’t first and foremost lovers of classical literature. Of the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Greco-Roman titles that once existed, only precious hundreds have come down to us through this chokepoint. They include some of the choicest pickings, but vast amounts of classical culture were simply lost. No one bothered to re-copy most of the texts as they rotted away.

Could we be facing a modern chokepoint as books are digitized? When a book takes its place in the digital cloud, it remains at risk from shifts in server technologies and ownership. After all, much early computer data are presently unreadable because the hardware, software, and memory storage methods of the day are already obsolete. Perhaps not every book will be reformatted to each sequential technology.

This may prove to be the case. For now, though, our access to books and information is unprecedented. Ashurbanipal can eat his heart out.

Synonym Finder (Thesaurus) from Ashurbanipal’s Library

Shameless Plug: One of my own short stories featuring a student scribe in ancient Nineveh:

The Bookworm


  1. I'm in the same boat Richard. During my college years the internet was still pretty new. I had one professor that insisted we use an internet source for our paper. But the computer lab was so small and constantly booked, that he relented. Still we did get to play around on a website that focused on Medieval History and had lots of great material. But nearly all my research was done with dusty tomes in the library, and that oh so distinct old book smell.

    There was a movie that dealt with the end of the Library at Alexandria, called "Agora" with Rachel Weisz as Hypatia. The film deals more with religious intolerance and it's power to destroy, but the ancient world setting is pretty impressive and Weisz is excellent in the part. Worth seeking out if you're up for a good dramatic period film.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on Agora.

      I don't know what the trend is in public library usage. Municipalities keep expanding them around me, but if that is in any way related to the number of users I couldn't say.

  2. I don't use our library here much as they want to charge people outside the city limits a fee each month for the services claiming we don't pay city taxes (which is true, we don't). However when I lived in Odessa that was not the case. If you knew a friend that would verify you, you could get one that way too, no biggie--I assume that wanted a smart community. Not here. Sometimes I rather hate the regressive thinking here. It's not like I don't pay school taxes or even support the library by buying some of their books or media.

    But yeah, I think physical media will be around for a while, particularly where I live.

    1. I guess some public libraries are more public than others. Perhaps the administrators of that library would feel more at ease if they just threatened out-of-towners with some of Ashurbanipal's curses. There probably would be fewer cases of unreturned books.