The Library of Alexandria Reopens: This Brand-New Institution Claims an Influential, Ancient Legacy. (IT Feature)

By Bilboul, Roger | Information Today, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Library of Alexandria Reopens: This Brand-New Institution Claims an Influential, Ancient Legacy. (IT Feature)


Bilboul, Roger, Information Today


After some 1,600 years, the Library of Alexandria (now called Bibliotheca Alexandrina) has reopened in Egypt. Amid an unprecedented media blitz, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak inaugurated the new library on October 16. The presidents of France, Greece, and Italy as well as the queens of Spain and Jordan joined him for the occasion. Schools were shut for 3 days and public transportation was halted for the day. The celebrations continued for a month.

The Ancient Library

The new library (http://www.bibalex.org) is being projected into the modern world as a restatement of the ancient library's legacy. In the introduction to a book about the old library, Federico Mayor, former director general of UNESCO, said: "If the ancient Library of Alexandria has exercised such a hold on man's imagination down the ages and inspires such scholarly devotion to the unravelling of its mysteries, it is because of its unique representative value.... The Library seems to have been associated with the development of a heightened perception of knowledge as a tool, and of the quest for knowledge as a collaborative and syncretic process."

Indeed, the ancient library saw the light of day in 288 B.C., a time of explosive cultural and scientific developments in what was then the capital of the world. Not only was the library the largest in antiquity but it was also a crossroads for scholars from the whole of the Mediterranean region. The Ptolemies who ruled Egypt at the time were passionate about maintaining and expanding their cultural pre-eminence. They went to extraordinary lengths to develop the best and largest collection. They would, for example, search every ship unloading in Alexandria and seize any book they found to add to their collection. They borrowed important manuscripts from Athens, copied them, kept the original, and returned the copy, thus forfeiting the large deposits they paid.

The library served the greatest thinkers of the time, among them Euclid, Archimedes, and Herophilus, to name a few. For the large Hellenized Jewish population, the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek. This translation is claimed to be "the most valuable work in the history of all translations" and continues to be "indispensable to all biblical studies."

Controlling a collection of some 700,000 manuscripts called for groundbreaking developments in cataloging. A mere listing of the manuscripts and their authors, editors, provenance, and length was not sufficient. A subject categorization and critical analysis of the content were required. Enter Callimachus of Cyrene, a poet with encyclopedic knowledge who produced an extensive bibliography of all the library's holdings. Entries were arranged by subject and in alphabetical order by author name.

According to I. Harold Ellens (Archaeology Odyssey, May/June 1999): "Each entry recorded the name and birthplace of the author, the name of the author's father and teachers, the place and nature of the author's education, any nickname or pseudonym applied to the author, a short biography including a list of the author's works, a comment on their authenticity (that is, whether the works were really written by the author), the first line of the work specified, a brief digest of the volume, the source from which the book was acquired (such as the city where it was bought or the ship from which it was confiscated), the name of the former owner, [and] the name of the scholar who edited the text. …

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