- Musings MMSt Blog
Lessons from the Library of Alexandria
By: Sarah Cavaliere
Illustration of the ancient Library of Alexandria, Egypt. Courtesy of Encyclopædia Britannica.
Despite its fame, the Library of Alexandria is a mysterious institution. Its true fate is often contested, and there are no surviving accounts of the full scope of the Library’s collection. What we do know, however, reveals similarities to today’s encyclopedic museums.
The institution as it is thought of today was, in reality, two linked institutions: the Library and the Mouseion (or, Museum). These sister institutions were founded during the reign of Ptolemy I with the intention of gathering all the knowledge of the world under one roof. A chief librarian administered the Library, while the epistates (“director”) and a priest ran the Museum.
To reach the goal of Alexandria becoming the centre of culture and civilization, the Ptolemaic rulers instituted various collecting policies. Ships unloading at the harbour of Alexandria were searched for books. Any books found on board were brought to the scholars at the Library, who decided whether to keep the books or return them to their owners.
Map of ancient Alexandria. Courtesy of F. W. Putzgers Historischer Schul-Atlas (Wikimedia Commons).
As the collection grew, the Ptolemies became more relentless in their quest. Stories tell of Ptolemy III, who convinced the governors of Athens to loan their original copies of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to the Library for copying. Instead of returning them as agreed, however, Ptolemy III kept the manuscripts for the Library of Alexandria.
The collection at the Library soon became unwieldy and difficult to navigate. One of the Library’s scholars, Callimachus of Cyrene, created a catalogue of the Library’s contents known as the Pinakes. This record only exists in fragments today. Eventually, the collections at the Library and Museum of Alexandria were lost. The true contents of the Library may never be known outside of the impressions of grandeur recorded by contemporary scholars.
At a glance, it’s easy to see how today’s encyclopedic museums of the world reflect the Library of Alexandria. These museums often claim to tell the history of the world through their objects, and some have long histories of claiming objects that were never rightfully theirs.
How can contemporary encyclopedic museums – whose missions and historic collecting practices sound a lot like those of the Library – avoid the same fate as the Library of Alexandria? How can we ensure that these collections don’t fade into obscurity if our recordkeeping fails millennia in the future?
It’s a question I don’t have a good answer to.
The legacy of the Library of Alexandria is long-lasting; scholars who lived centuries after the Library was lost continued to write about the number of books found in the Library. The collection of the Library clearly had a big enough impact on the collective memory of scholars that these impressions of its size lasted longer than the Library itself. How can we make sure that our collections are remembered, too?
Maybe, if we share our collections with as many people as possible, we will be able to preserve the collections of large museums in the collective memory of their communities. Museums should continue to give the public access to their collections, especially those that will never be put on display.
What do you think the Library of Alexandria held within its walls?
Barnes, R. (2005). Cloistered Bookworms in the Chicken-Coop of the Muses: The Ancient Library of Alexandria. In R. MacLeod (Ed.), The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (pp. 61–77). London, New York: I. B. Tauris.
El-Abbadi, M. (1990). The life and fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria. Paris: UNESCO/UNDP.
TED-Ed. “What really happened to the Library of Alexandria?” YouTube video, 4:52. August 14, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvWncVbXfJ0.
About the Author: Sarah Cavaliere
Sarah is a second year MMSt student in the exhibition course stream. Before joining the iSchool, Sarah earned her Bachelor of Arts at U of T with a double major in French Linguistics and Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations. In the Museum Studies program, Sarah has discovered that her passion lies in museum education and collections management. Outside of school, Sarah spends her time reading (and is always looking for a good book recommendation!) and playing with her cat, Leo.