Friday, January 06, 2006

Diogenes' Thumbprint: Libraries and History

Diogenes’ Thumbprint
by Betsy McKenzie

Linguists have a wonderful term, linguistic fossil. This is a word or phrase left in everyday language unchanged from an earlier time. These are clues to the history and development of a culture. For instance, American law clearly shows its roots in English law as it existed at the time of the American Revolution. We have lawyers here, while the British and Irish have barristers and solicitors because that split in practice developed shortly after 1776.

In the early 1800's a British lawyer sued his client for non-payment of his fee. The court ruled that a lawyer, as a gentleman, could not be involved in anything so crass as working for a fee. Thus, the barristers today have the cachet of 19th century gentlemen. Their clients are always the less genteel solicitors. Barristers never have to sue for a fee because a solicitor who failed to pay would quickly find that no barrister would take his case to court. The solicitor is the
one who has the defendant or plaintiff as a client, and can sue for unpaid fees. American lawyers were never affected by that, and remain undifferentiated (and wigless!).

In turn, English law carries in its language the imprint of the Norman Conquest. Law French terms such as moiety, femme and baron hark back to a time when all lawyers were required to learn and practice in French because the ruling class had once spoken French. And we see the roots of all those traditions in the law of ancient Rome in the many terms brought by medieval scholasticism into law. Res ipsa loquiter.

Like the law itself, libraries carry the imprint of their development over more than a millennium of time. I was astounded to discover just how long ago the basic arrangements of libraries were established. The earliest libraries were collections of references, census and accounting for the use of kings in Assyria and Sumeria. These were private libraries used by the kings and their staffs. Public access libraries did not develop until the ancient Greeks achieved a broader population that was literate. Ancient Greek librarians established the tradition of arranging books by subject areas, and producing catalogs of books in alphabetical order by author. Of course, these were scrolls, not books back then. But the problem of finding what was needed, and locating new authors discussing the same subject arose as soon as collections grew beyond the easy recollection of one mind.

The most famous ancient library was the Great Library of Alexandria. It is not clear whether that library was burned or simply dissolved as the rule of law disintegrated with the Roman Empire. The library was accumulated beginning with the first Ptolemies of Egypt. These rulers descend from Alexander the Great’s friend and general, Ptolemy, who seized Egypt for himself after Alexander’s death. He and his heirs built the city of Alexandria into a cosmopolitan center of learning by supporting scholars to come to the library and work. The scholars had their room and board, and were expected to write, think and talk in the Library.

The scrolls at Alexandria were accumulated with a certain degree of force. Various Ptolemies and their agents would seize all the scrolls on board any ship calling to port. They would also order citizens to surrender their personal libraries. Some book owners would dig trenches and hide their best scrolls when the king’s troops came around. This was a time when scrolls were produced by hand, copied by scribes on specially prepared sheep- or calfskin.

Ancient booksellers would keep a certain number of bestsellers on hand, already copied. But a buyer who wanted a less popular title would essentially contract with the bookseller for a custom copy. The buyer often had to arrange the loan of the title to be copied, often from a friend with a personal library. There were problems with careless or inadvertent mistakes in copies, which were then perpetuated when later copies were made from the error-ridden version.

It was scholar’s job to sort out the mistakes and help create authoritative editions. With the rise of the Roman Empire, public libraries were established in Rome and many of the wealthier cities. The public libraries of Rome were usually built as an adjunct to public baths. (Think about the humidity! And we worry about a few coffee stains; just think of what got on those scrolls.)

We have many traditions still living from those ancient libraries – Diogenes’ thumbprint on our current culture. But other things have changed with the society around us. We certainly look at acquiring and copying books in a different way than the ancients did. Scrolls went out of fashion once the codex was developed, the ancestor of our modern book. The earliest codices were thin boards tied together with cord, and mostly used for schoolboys’ work. But the advantage of being able to flip to the correct chapter, rather than rolling through a scroll finally outweighed the cachet and scholarly tradition of scrolls. We would probably never consider
setting up a library at a health club, our current equivalent to Roman baths. ibraries have accrued a whiff of the sacred and exclusivity from the monastic libraries of the European Middle Ages. Besides, the shift from parchment and vellum to wood pulp paper has made our books much more susceptible to damage from humidity and sweat!

Books are much more common today than ever in history. The development of the printing press made hand-copying an anachronism. We take for granted today that all copies of a certain edition will have the same text. However, the rise of e-books on the Internet, and the ease of copying (and of modifying) texts may bring back some of the issues facing earlier scholars. When the Montana Freedmen post a copy of the United States Constitution on their web site, the reader might be well-advised to verify that it is an authoritative and correct copy. Our challenge is to maintain the best of the ancient practices and traditions, and to modify as needed as the world of text goes through yet another revolution.

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