Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria

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Library of Alexandria

2 The universal library?

If we think about a library collection as a body of knowledge, then we can see that the way in which that collection is built up, ordered, and classified, is very important. Not only is some kind of order necessary to help scholars – both ancient and modern – navigate their way through a mass of information, it also tells us something about the particular worldview that underpins that collection of knowledge, and the ideological purposes that motivate it. So, for example, we would expect a study of volcanoes to be classified as a ‘scientific’ work, but the Greeks and Romans did not use the same sorts of categories to classify things: a text like Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura used quite different methods to explore the natural world, not least in its use of poetry to explain such diverse topics as the weather, geological features, or the human body.

The question of organising knowledge becomes even more pressing when we turn to the Library of Alexandria, for this was a collection that, many people believe, was intended to hold all books that had ever existed. Can such a claim be true? Let’s begin by delving a little deeper into this part of the Library’s story. The belief in the Library’s universality can be traced to a letter by one Aristeas, apparently an Alexandrian courtier in the second century BCE; it is the earliest extant source that mentions the Library. In the course of describing how the Library came to hold the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint (or Greek Old Testament), Aristeas explains how its first director, Demetrios of Phaleron, ‘received large sums of money to gather together, if possible, all the books in the world’ (Letter of Aristeas, 9; see Shutt, 1985, p. 12). The idea that the Library of Alexandria set out to gather every book ever written – including important non-Greek texts – no matter the cost, would be repeated numerous times, from the first-century CE historian Josephus, to the sixth-century CE scholar Isidore of Seville, until it became arguably the most famous characteristic of the Library, with enormous repercussions for how we view it today.

Activity 1

Before we test the veracity of this claim, I’d like you to stop and consider why this belief in a universal library of Alexandria might have been so powerful and long-lasting. First, jot down some thoughts on what the idea of a universal library means to you. What might be its equivalent in the modern world?

Then read Andy Potts, ‘The internet’s librarian’ (2009), which is an extract from an Economist magazine profile of Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, and Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (2006). How does the library of Alexandria figure in each of these accounts, and how do their pictures of a modern version contrast with each other?


It’s not hard to see why the universal library is an appealing idea. On a personal level, think about the collection of information, whether large or small, that might be gathered on your bookshelves at home. Not only can you access it any time you like, you might also feel as though you somehow already possess the knowledge contained within those shelves, even if you haven’t read all the books! Now imagine what it would mean if the library of a city or an institution, or even an individual, could claim to have gathered all the world’s knowledge on to its shelves. Such an achievement would bestow enormous prestige on those responsible for the collection; they, too, might even seem to possess the knowledge themselves. You might also have noted that a universal library might not equate to universal access. A collection of all the world’s knowledge looks very different if not everyone can consult it.

If you were imagining an ancient universal library, you were no doubt picturing something on an enormous, awe-inspiring scale, but what about a modern equivalent? A few decades ago this would have been hard to comprehend, but now of course the internet offers a tantalising glimpse of a virtual universal library which gathers all the world’s knowledge, and even preserves digital copies of all books. The profile of Brewster Kahle shows how the library of Alexandria provides a reference point for these endeavours, and Alberto Manguel makes the same sort of comparison with his description of digitisation projects as ‘the ghostly stock of all manner of Alexandrias past or future’. The library of Alexandria still looms large as a model of universal knowledge for the twenty-first century.

While both Kahle and Manguel see the internet as the heir to the ancient concept of the universal library, you might have noted that Manguel’s notes of caution contrast with Kahle’s enthusiasm. Although Manguel acknowledges the practical benefits of a virtual universal library, he hopes that it will coexist with the traditional library, and he reminds us that even virtual copies of books are fragile and not immune to being lost. You may or may not share these anxieties about the digital universal library, but it is important to recognise how central they are to the question of ‘how we know what we know’ in the twenty-first century and beyond. As you proceed to look at the library of Alexandria and its fate in more detail, you will also see how some of these modern anxieties have very ancient roots.


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