Monday, January 31, 2011

Books About Libraries

Collecting books often leads to a fascination with libraries.  Sure, there are famous examples of book collectors who consider libraries a source of materials and end up stealing rare books and manuscripts, but it is more likely that libraries are considered sacred places by bibliophiles. 

My experience with libraries began in Des Plaines, Illinois as a youngster visiting the Des Plaines Public Library, then, a charming neo-classical building, now a rather imposing large contemporary structure.  I have fond memories of spending hours browsing the book stacks for new discoveries and additional hours reading current issues of newspapers and magazines (well before the advent of the World Wide Web eliminated the need to visit a library for such access).  During high school, I discovered the immense holdings of a major Big Ten campus library, spending many weekends researching for forensic debate at the main Northwestern University Library.  I was lucky to attend two Universities with easy access to world class libraries, first at Carnegie Mellon University where I split my time between the campus library and the the Carnegie Library Pittsburgh, in the Oakland neighborhood down the hill from CMU and later at the University of Chicago at the Regenstein Library

Carnegie Library Pittsburgh

My experience and memories of these libraries included extensive scholarly research, serious exploration of the stacks browsing the collections and frustration that I did not have unlimited, free and unfettered access to the rare book and manuscript collections.  Now, I tend to seek out libraries that are part of history and I can spend hours visiting and contemplating current collections, rare books collections and the history and architecture of the place itself.

Over the past few years I have started collecting books about libraries, the history of libraries and illustrated books showcasing beautiful libraries.  It is natural for bibliophiles to collect books about books but I have found that collecting books about libraries is rewarding as well.  In fact, my research suggests that now is the right time to start a book collection focusing on the history and evolution of the library.  Over a series of posts I will begin writing about great libraries today, the great libraries of the past and the most beautiful libraries of the world. 

Libraries in the Ancient World by the late Lionel Casson, Yale University Press, 2001, is a fine starting place for collecting books about libraries.  This short book is both a wonderful introduction to the library and a title heralded as the first serious study of libraries in the ancient world. Casson, Professor Emeritus of  Classics at New York University, begins his study of the library in the ancient Near East with the origin of writing and the collections of clay tablets detailing business transactions, treaties, and contracts.  He then focuses on the beginnings of the library as we know it today in Greece and the discovery of paper from papyrus around 3000 BC.  The tradition of learning and literature that arose in Greece was adopted by Rome and to Rome and the evolution of the library is where Casson heads next.  We learn that around 39 BC, a supporter of Julius Caesar, Asinius Pollio, was able to fulfill one of Caesar's unrealized goals and established a public library in Rome.  Augustus, after consolidating power in the aftermath of Caesar's assassination built two other libraries in Rome.  The Roman era was a great time for early library development.  The tale continues with the transition, beginning probably around 100 AD from papyrus rolls to the form we know today, the codex.  By 500 AD the codex is the primary format for books.  Casson completes his study of the library in the ancient world during the early Middle Ages and the rise of the monastic life and associated libraries.  If this indeed is, the first book to focus solely on the library in the ancient world, it should be a cornerstone for a collection of books about libraries.  The hardcover first edition first printing is available and the link above should provide access to copies available via marketplace. 


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