The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Friday, 17 October 2008

35. i) Dusty books and silence

Last week, here at the European Capital of Culture 2008, we were blessed by no less august a figure than Andy Burnham, the government’s Culture Secretary, outlining the glorious future for Britain’s libraries in the 21st century, “far removed from the stereotype of dusty books and silence.” Libraries, we are thrilled to hear, will be put at the very heart of communities, and all kinds of excitement and fun will be contained therein.

Liverpool, like most UK cities, has a splendid record of doing its very best to banish the association of libraries with mere dusty books, by selling volumes acquired at public expense off at 10p a book, at a rate sufficient to keep the city’s antiquarian book dealers in business. By rigorously applying the criteria of popularity of a given volume to determine whether it remains in the collection, libraries are managing to gradually phase out the fuddy-duddy ramblings of yesteryear with the latest Buffy the Vampire Slayer serialization. I am not complaining : recent acquisitions to the Barleycorn collection have included Nelson's Purse ("the rise and vertiginous fall of Nelson's confident, Alexander Davison") printed way back in 2004, and The Shield of Achilles : War, Peace and the Course of History (2002), which were together worth paying less than the price of a pint of milk for.

Last month The Times managed to hilariously put recent relaxations of prohibitions against food and talking to the test by sending a reporter round to various London libraries to talk loudly on her mobile phone and spill doughnut crumbs and cola on the books. What larks, Pip!

Volume 14 of the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica contains the fascinating and extensively researched article LIBRARIES by H. R. Tedder, F. S. A., Librarian, Athenaeum Club, and E. C. Thomas, B. A., Secretary, Library Association, London. As well as a history of libraries, advice on the collection and maintenance of a library, there is also a survey, accompanied by a table consisting of ten pages of statistics, of the collections of every library in the United Kingdom and the principal libraries of the rest of the world. It is impressive and striking as an attempt to provide something of an index to all the printed knowledge of the planet, circa 1882.

The historical portion of the article gives a fascinating impression given of the fragility, across the ages, of the process by which knowledge has been transferred, and a tantalising vision of all that has been lost to dust and fire.

“The researches which have followed the discoveries of Botta and Layard have thrown unexpected light not only upon the history but upon the arts, the sciences, and the literature of the ancient civilizations of Babylonia and Assyria. In all these wondrous revelations no facts are more interesting than those which show the existence of extensive libraries so many ages ago, and none are more eloquent of the elaborateness of these forgotten civilizations.

“In the course of his excavations at Nineveh in 1850, Layard came upon some chambers in the south-west palace, the floor of which, as well as of the adjoining rooms, was covered to the depth of a foot with tablets of clay, covered with cuneiform characters, in many cases so small as to require a magnifying glass. These varied in size from an inch to a foot square. […] These tablets formed the library of the great monarch Assur-bani-pal -the Sardanapalus of the Greeks - the greatest patron of literature among the Assyrians. It is estimated that this library consisted of some ten thousand distinct works and documents, some of the works extending over several tablets. The tablets appear to have been methodically arranged and catalogued, and the library seems to have been thrown open for the general use of the king’s subjects. [See Menant, BibliothĂ©que du Palais de Nineve, Paris, 1880.] A great portion of this library has already been brought to England and deposited in the British Museum, but it is calculated that there still remain some 20,000 fragments to be gathered up. [...]"

Complaints of cultural imperialism would be entirely out of place here, but it is kind of fun to read a throwaway contemporary reference to the British Museum's hoovering up of artifacts and antiquities.

There follows an account of the ancient Greek libraries, centering on those of Alexandria. I had a vague idea that the destruction of that renowned repository of learning was a particular and infamous event in history : it transpires that the historical truth is more complex.

"When Caesar set fire to the fleet in the harbour of Alexandria, the flames accidentally extended to the larger library of the Bruchium, and it was destroyed. [Parthey (Alexandrinisches Museum) assigns topographical reasons for doubting this story.] Anthony endeavoured to repair the loss by presenting to Cleopatra the library from Pergamus. This was very probably placed in the Bruchium, as this continued to be the literary quarter of Alexandria until the time of Aurelian. [...] The usual statement that from the date of the restoration of the Bruchium under Cleopatra the libraries continued in a flourishing condition until they were destroyed bafter the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens in 640 A.D. can hardly be supported. It is very possible that one of the libraries perished when the Bruchium quarter was destroyed by Auralian, 273 A. D. In 389 or 391 an edict of Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, and its books were pillaged by Christians. When we take into account the disordered condition of the times, and the neglect into which literature and science had fallen, there can be little difficulty in believing that there were but few books left to be destroyed by the soldiers of 'Amr. The familiar anecdote of the caliph's message to his general (vol. i. p. 494) rests mainly upon the evidence of Abulfaragius, so that we may be tempted to agree with Gibbon that the report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years is overbalanced by the silence of earlier native annalists. It is, however, so far from easy to settle the question that a cloud of names could easily be cited upon either side, while some of the most careful inquirers confess the difficulty of a decision."

This underlines something brought to mind recently, when I heard on the radio some academic or politician speaking of a constant cultural effort throughout 19th century British academia to denigrate the Arabic and Islamic world. I have yet to scour the pages of Britannica for references which may support or refute this assertion ; my general impression at the time was that the statement was some way off the mark, : this article supports that notion. Elsewhere, where the authors write of libraries in the dark and middle ages, this is emphasized again. After speaking of the fragile flame of learning preserved by monastic tradition (with its own repeated outbreaks of hostility against the writings of earlier pagans), we read :

"The first conquests of the Arabians, as we have already seen, threatened hostility to literature. But, as soon as their conquests were secured, the caliphs became the patrons of learning and science. Greek manuscripts were eagerly sought for and translated into Arabic, and colleges and libraries everywhere arose. Baghdad in the East and Cordova in the West became the seats of a rich development of letters and science during the age when the civilization of Europe was most obscured. Cairo and Tripoli were also distinguished for their libraries. The royal library of the Fatimites in Africa is said to have numbered 100,000 manuscripts, while that collected by the Omayyads in Spain is reported to have contained six times as many. It is said that there were no less than seventy libraries in the cities of Andalusia. Whether these figures be exaggerated or not - and they are much below those given by some Arabian writers, which are undoubtedly so - it is certain that the libraries of the Arabians and the Moors of Spain offer a very remarkable contrast to those of the Christian nations during the same period."

Still to come : Tedder & Thomas's catalogue of the world's libraries, and how best to avoid the fatal proclivity of book-binders.

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