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Libraries in the Ancient World Paperback – September 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The Dewey decimal system of cataloguing and its modern successors are relatively new, and they sometimes seem inadequate as ways of organizing knowledge in ever-changing fields of study. But the idea of bringing order to collections of written material is an ancient one, as Lionel Casson writes in this lucid survey of bibliophilia in the ancient Mediterranean. Among the earliest examples of written material that we have are lists of library holdings, clay tablets from Mesopotamia that archive commercial inventories, scholarly texts, and a surprising number of works on witchcraft and remedies against it.

Ancient libraries grew, Casson writes, by many means: by peaceful trade, as when book-hungry Romans spent extravagant sums on Greek texts made in southern Italy; by conquest, as when the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal looted the libraries of his ancient rival Babylon, carting the contents to his capital of Nineveh; and by fiat, as when the Egyptian pharaohs appropriated private collections to round out their own. Those libraries nourished the great philosophers and writers of old, shaping world culture into our own time. But, as Casson ably shows, the enemies of books are many, among them floods, fires, insects, and intolerance. As it is today, so it was in the past, and contending empires and ideologies too often expressed themselves by sacking and burning the collections of their enemies--by reason of which we have only a few of the works that engaged readers in the distant past.

Casson's slender book enhances our understanding of the role of books and their collectors in the ancient world, and bibliophiles and historians alike will find much of value in its pages. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

This, according to the author (Travel in the Ancient World; etc.), "is the first full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world." This alone will make the book very attractive to a readership well beyond those with professional interests in the ancient world. And yet the book's title sells its contents short since it is really about a great deal more than the curatorship of the written word through its very specialized beginnings in the Near East c. 3000 B. C. until the collapse of cities in the Western Roman world. Casson's book is not limited to where and when important libraries existed; it offers a social history transcending the idea of a library as we know it. Casson discusses literacy in the ancient world; the techniques of production and the materials from which books were made (clay tablets in the oldest repositories in the Near East; papyrus and parchment in the West); trade in books; the centrality of libraries as the predecessors of modern universities and research institutions; the organization of Greco-Roman libraries, which continues, necessarily modified, in today's libraries; the differences and intersections among royal, private and public libraries; the kinds of books favored by libraries and even observations on the concept of the rare book in antiquity. Detailed consideration of the architectural elements of ancient libraries (what did these libraries look like? Where and how were books stored? How were reading rooms arranged?) makes the book as appealing to the archeologist as the bibliophile.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Yale Nota Bene
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; Revised ed. edition (September 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300097212
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300097214
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #475,439 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
There were libraries before there were books. A fascinating survey, _Libraries in the Ancient World_ (Yale University Press) by Lionel Casson, explains how the libraries were similar and different from our own, and how they managed without printing and without books as we know them. The similarities are reassuring and often delightful. We suspect there were Egyptian libraries, but we have never found one, because there are no masses of papyrus documents; such collections may have been lost in fires. The Sumerians, however, had written records were in cuneiform letters, pressed into clay. Some of the collections of these tablets offered the privilege of borrowing, and librarians then seem to have been bothered by two of the same problems that beset librarians now, theft and damage. Tablets bore warnings or curses calling upon the services of the local gods: "Whoever removes the tablet... may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land", "He who carries it off, may Adad and Shala carry him off!", and "Who rubs out the text, Marduk will look upon him with anger."
It was the Greeks who instituted libraries with aims similar to our own, shelves full of books on a wide range of subjects, available to readers who could come in and consult them. There was a demand for books, and by the fourth century BCE, bookselling was a flourishing industry. The booksellers probably employed scribes to turn out copies of works. There were no such things as royalties or author's rights. Rome conquered all, but Greece held intellectual sway over the Romans, who continued the library tradition.
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Format: Hardcover
For a book that could have been unspeakably dull, Libraries in the Ancient World is a fascinating (and easy to read) look at a neglected aspect of the classical world. Starting with Ebla and the Sumarians, it travels through Greece, Egypt, Rome and up into the Medieval world providing insight and amusing anecdotes about historical figures from ancient times. Most people have heard about the burning of the Library at Alexandria -- not many might realize it burned several times, and was rebuilt until the last burning finally destroyed it. One of Marc Antony's gifts to Cleopatra was scrolls to replace some burned in one fire. Early clay tablets show that one thing never changes for libraries; there is an invocation to the Gods asking that they wipe from the earth -- book thieves. It includes a bibliography if you want to do more investigation.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Great! to be concise (as the book was). A very informative and detailed description of early libraries and, to an extent, their role in the ancient world. This work is filled with important facts regarding the institutions we now call libraries. Casson also puts his well researched data into the context of time and place of the Ancient World. It is amazing to learn when and where certain libarary conventions we take for granted today, come from. This book is a great starting point for further exploration of early libraries or libraries in general. It is also sufficient by itself as a quick survey of the first 1000 years of libraries and texts.
Casson also keeps the work interesting by including the derivation of certain words such as "ostracism" and "parchement". He also gives an important sense of how scrolls and tablets were used in ancient times and by whom.
This book would probably not be adequate for a library scholar but I did not think it was intended as such. For the other 98% of us with deep interests in Classical history, antiquity, and libaries in general, it is a wonderful work and well written.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this amazingly complete 150-page volume, renowned author Lionel Casson, takes us on a wonderful journey of discovery of the role of libraries in the ancient world, from their origins in the Near East in 3000 BC through their evolution until the fall of Roman Byzantium in 1453 AD.
Written in a lively prose, this well-researched, fact-filled book explains when, where, why, and how the forerunners of today's modern libraries were created and developed, treating in detail topics such as:
*How did they acquire their materials?
*How were they physically organized?
*Which, if any, system of cataloguing they used?
*Who had access to their holdings?
*How they solved problems like theft and damage of their collections?
*What was their connection with the rise and fall of education?
The author also presents a concise account of the history of books from clay tablet to papyrus roll to parchment codex to our modern day volumes. He shares fascinating insights into the development of writing and the evolution of writing technology, including:
*What was the purpose of writing?
*Which topics were more commonly written about?
*Which materials were used and why?
*Who did the writing?
The best part of this book is the entertaining and charming way in which the author illustrates his exposition. By employing captivating anecdotes from sources contemporary to the facts, literary sources that have survived to this day, and archaeological finds combined with modern technology that make possible the reconstruction of ancient library buildings, he makes what would otherwise be a very boring topic feel like a true adventure.
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