Monday, March 13, 2006

Diogenes’ Thumbprint to St. Benedict’s Imprimatur

Earlier in this blog, I discussed the roots of library history in the ancient world, in a posting called Diogenes’ Thumbprint. There I discussed the beginnings of libraries in such practices as simple bookkeeping by kings, and on to the Great Library of Alexandria. This library aspired to hold all human knowledge at the time. In those days, the importance of scholarship was in knowing the best text, the most-likely correct version. Everything was hand-copied and mistakes crept in. So having the oldest copy meant having a copy least likely to have errors.

Librarians and the Ptolemies who ruled Alexandria gathered materials for that library by sometimes underhanded means, seizing all scrolls on ships that pulled into the harbor. Ptolemy III also “borrowed” a number of very rare, old, original texts from Athens, paying a great deal of silver as collateral. He then copied the texts, but kept the originals, returned the copies and let Athens keep the silver and fume.

The Great Library fell into disrepair and either through small or large thefts, gradually dispersed into nothing during the period of Roman rule. The Romans built scholarly libraries in the names of four emperors and donors: Asinius Pollio, Augustus Caesar, one in the portico of Octavia and one built by the Emperor Trajan. But public libraries for general use were in the baths. They were divided into Greek and Roman sides and staffed by slaves. But as the Roman Empire drew to an end, all the libraries began to close, and it looked as though libraries were ending.

But in AD 500, monasteries began to insist that the monks be literate, not merely pious. And so, across the eastern part of the soon-to-be Byzantine Empire, monasteries began to form libraries. The emperor’s family still maintained a library, and the university in the city of Constantinople had a library. As the Benedictine order became regularized, a major part of the monastic life revolved around reading and working in the scriptorium.

The movement of librarianship into Christian monasteries had several effects. It created an aura of greater distance between the common man and the elite who could read -- after all reading was now being done in the dead language of Latin or Greek. It was a universal language of scholarship, but it was also a huge barrier to understanding by the undeducated. It protected libraries to have them rooted in the Benedictine order. It was built into the regular structure of the monastic day and year that there would be reading and that certain members of the order would have as their job to copy manuscripts. The Benedictines created monastic libraries in all their monasteries. They would lend books to each other – the beginning of what we now call interlibrary loan. And the monks favored the form of the codex over the scroll. Any lingering possibility that scrolls might still make it as a format for day to day reading was crushed by this decision. Monks ran their libraries solely for the codex. The libraries in the Roman and Byzantine Empires had been mixed formats -- some scrolls and some codices. The monasteries voted firmly for the codex, and the world has never looked back. Scrolls are only for ceremony now.

As Europe entered the Renaissance and merchant families experienced new prosperity, they often used that wealth to build private libraries. Often, these private libraries, donated to universities, became the foundation for great university libraries. For instance, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated his private library to Oxford University in the 1400's to form the nucleus of the Bodleian Library. Humphrey lost out on having his name attached to the collection when Sir Thomas Bodley came along and rebuilt the collection in the late 1500's.

In the United States, John Harvard donated his 400 volume private collection, and in the process managed to name the new university to which he gave the library. This is the oldest library in our country. But free lending libraries were founded by Englishman John Bray in the American colonies in the 1600s. And Thomas Jefferson donated his private library as the foundation of the Library of Congress in 1815 after the original collection was burned in the War of 1812.

Much of the material in the essay comes from an excellent article that appeared originally in History magazine, October/November, 2001, but can be read entirely online at
This very handsome illumination of a monk working in a scriptorium is from a website for the Monastery of Christ in the Desert at

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