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The Ultimate Library Book

Fall 2002

     The Great Libraries, by Konstantinos Staikos, published jointly by the Oak Knoll Press and the British Library in 2000, has been purchased by the Patrons for the Pollak Library in memory of Velda Johnson Parker, the Patrons' past president and Treasurer. This splendid volume deserves special recognition for what it achieves; and it also prompts reflections on libraries that are only implicit in its pages.

     Konstantinos Staikos, a native of Athens, began 30 years ago to study the history of Greek books during the Greek diaspora-the five centuries after the capture of Constantinople by Moslem armies in 1453 and up to the founding of modern Greece. (We all have our early images of those robed Byzantine scholars, clutching their precious texts, fleeing the crumbling walls of the Imperial City. Only a myth, according to Staikos. But Greek humanistic culture did permeate southeastern Europe before as well as after the end of the Byzantine Empire.)

     His project, daunting enough, soon expanded into a history of books from ancient times to the Renaissance. As Staikos saw it, this inevitably entailed also a history of literacy, scholarship, authors, collectors and collecting, printing, book production, the book trade, and of course libraries -- their founders, patrons, architecture, and social context. Libraries came to be his focus, the other themes subsidiary. This history (Part I) comprises the first 11 chapters of the volume. The next 14 chapters (Part II) are detailed accounts of still functioning monastic and humanistic libraries of Europe created before 1600.

     The most striking feature of The Great Libraries (after its weight--eight lbs.!) is its abundance of illustrations--too many to list in the Contents--which make up almost half the total area of the pages. They include dozens of full color photographs of the highest quality made especially for this volume, and a proliferation of woodcuts, drawings, portraits, maps and ground plans. The opulent format--large pages, high gloss paper, impeccable typography--is complemented by an unstinting scholarly apparatus--a 30-page bibliography in eight languages, a 20-page index, and interesting notes in vertical columns.

     The textual riches of the book may perhaps be suggested by posing a few questions whose answers are found in its pages.

     In Sumeria, who used libraries? What did Assurbanipal's library contain? How were its cuneiform tablets made and arranged?

     In Egypt, how did papyrus scrolls facilitate the growth of libraries? How did hieroglyphic writing advance literary expression? What makes the scrolls more important to historians than the tablets of the Sumerians?

     In classical Greece, how were private libraries formed, and what books were most valued? How were Greek books produced and distributed? What was Aristotle's library like?

     In the Hellenistic era, how was the Library of Alexandria created? Let me suspend the questions at this point to say more. The library of Alexandria inevitably bulks large in this book, not because we really know a lot about it, but because of how much has been speculated, theorized, and often certified by repetition. Fragmentary, ambiguous, and contradictory, Hellenistic sources make a factual narrative history impossible. Staikos' account brings to mind a few circumstantial parallels with the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, scheduled to open officially in September 2002. (See the Patrons' Newsletter, Jan. 2001). Each library was sponsored by the then government of Egypt; each aspired to international status; each occupied a park shared with adjacent cultural institutions; each commanded a view of the Mediterranean; each began with a worldwide search for books to start its collection. (The differences within these similarities are enlightening.)

     Now to resume the questions. In Rome, who had private libraries, and what role did they play in cultural life? What were the libraries of the Emperors like? How did libraries develop in the Roman provinces?

     In the early Christian world, what happened to classical pagan libraries? How important was the Bible in libraries? Why is Cassidorus a hero in library history?

     In Byzantium, how did monastic libraries become the chief agent of cultural preservation? Where were these great libraries? Did Greek culture suffer in a Latin and Arabic-speaking Mediterranean world?

     In the Renaissance, how did printing change the nature of libraries? Why was Italy so far ahead in literary culture? How did Papal libraries compare with collections of the great princes?

     Such representative questions as these are answered by Staikos in ways that often correct the received opinions of non-specialist readers, and he repeatedly calls our attention to the uncertain state of historical knowledge.

     Despite its immense scope, The Great Libraries cannot encompass Arabic libraries, though they interpenetrated the intellectual life of medieval Europe via Asia Minor, the Balkans, Italy, and Spain. Nor does it mention the historic libraries of India and Tibet, or of China and Japan. And of course libraries in the Western Hemisphere are too recent. A word about what has been necessarily omitted would have been welcome.

     Reading about the 14 surviving libraries Staikos has chosen describe in Part II, we are of course impressed by the legacy they have preserved. But how much more has been lost forever! Perhaps four-fifths of all classical literature has not survived to the present day. Libraries destroyed by fire and pillage are only most brutal examples. Libraries have been lost by dispersal, neglect, and natural disasters, and many have disappeared without trace under unknown circumstance, and are known only by their reputations. The loss of a library is perhaps more painful and poignant than the loss of, say, a palace or a tomb, a temple or a church, because a library uniquely concentrate the essence of a literate culture over time--its many minds, activities achievements, and values. Hence the disappearance of the Alexandrian Library (by whatever cause), or the conflagration of books in the sack of Constantinople by the Latin armies of the Fourth Crusade, or the profligate sale of Duke Humfrey's manuscript codices in 16th century Oxford, or the burning of books in Nazi Germany, are especially deplorable events, in some sense crimes against humanity. And there is another crime: the subversion of libraries by the suppression, replacement, or rewriting of their books when ideological fanatics or religious fundamentalists hold powers. Stalinist, Maoist, or Taliban librarians are among the most recent and repugnant of such enemies of culture.

     Equally sobering, we must reluctantly acknowledge the increasing irrelevancy of The Great Libraries' contents. Up to a few centuries ago humanistic culture was culture. Today, science, technology (especially electronic information), and the homogenization of world societies and economies have restructured our minds and left a dwindling number of people able to care about the past enshrined in historic libraries. Modern libraries, on the other hand, are committed to unlimited change to meet society's expanding information needs. The march of modernity has irresistibly marginalized what was once at the center of culture. Still, in the face of this, it is reassuring that there remain privileged and secure places where the substance of The Great Libraries will survive far into the future.

Albert R. Vogeler