The Great Library of Alexandria?

By Phillips, Heather | Library Philosophy and Practice, August 2010 | Go to article overview

The Great Library of Alexandria?


Phillips, Heather, Library Philosophy and Practice


Introduction

The Great Library of Alexandria?[1]

From its Gate of the Sun to its Gate of the Moon, temples and palaces lined its spacious streets. Marbled columns and glittering statues dazzled visitors. Alexandria witnessed not only the romance of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra but also the genius of the greatest mathematicians and boasted the world's first and greatest public library, a library whose aim was to contain a copy of every book ever written.[2]

Though it was Alexandria's Pharos lighthouse that was counted among the Seven Wonders of the World,[3] Ancient Alexandria--a city founded by Alexander the Great as a showplace "metropolis linking Greece and Egypt"[4]--was a city in which wonders abounded. The city featured wide boulevards laid out in a grid, and buildings constructed of granite and marble.[5] Some say that Alexander himself had a hand in planning this great city. One of the most notable wonders of the city was the Great Library of Alexandria (hereinafter Great Library or Library), an institution which has assumed legendary proportions in the mythos of western civilization. However, institutions which assume mythological proportions are often obscured by the very legends they generate. While the Great Library's cultural and intellectual achievements resonate to this day, many do not and cannot separate the true nature and history of the Great Library from the fog of legend that surrounds it.

Was the Great Library a library in the modern professional sense of the word, or perhaps it was a kind of proto-library containing a large collection of texts? In order to explore these questions and to bring clarity to the topic of the Great Library, this paper will examine the founding and history of the Great Library and illustrate its purpose and philosophy. Finally this paper will then analyze the Great Library according to established library criteria. Section I will provide an overview of the founding, intellectual achievements, and fall of the Great Library. Section II will review the characteristics of the Great Library according to modern professional criteria.

Foundation and Description

The Great Library of Alexandria has assumed legendary qualities in the centuries since its creation and demise. The concept of a universal library, an institution containing all the intellectual works of the world, is one that has enchanted scholars for centuries. But where did such a concept originate? While there are indications of earlier attempts,[6] the first lasting attempt, and the one that has become fixed in the cultural consciousness of western civilization is that of Alexander the Great.[7] Old Persian and Armenian traditions indicate that Alexander the Great, upon seeing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh,[8] was inspired to combine all the works of the various nations he conquered, translate them into Greek, and collect them all under one roof.[9] While this inspiration was certainly prompted at least in part by a desire to consolidate information, and thereby power, under Greek authority, it is also an indication of Alexander's desire for his empire to be a multicultural empire[10]--albeit one unified under the influence of Hellenism.

Alexander died before he was able to create his universal library,[11] but his friend and successor[12] Ptolemy I, known as Ptolemy Soter,[13] was to begin the creation of Alexander's Library in a new Hellenic city which Alexander founded, and one in which his remains were to be ultimately interred[14]-- Alexandria.[15]

The presence of a natural harbor and a nearby supply of fresh water combined with an already existing colony of Macedonians made the selection of the site, in the conquered territory of Egypt, an easy choice for Alexander's new capital and center of Hellenism.[16] Given Alexandria's position as a center of world trade and polyglot nature,[17] it was vital for the Ptolemaic dynasty to unify their city and people so that Alexandria was not merely a place where many different people lived and through which trade passed. …

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