Books, and Libraries
A Historical Account
By James Westfall Thompson
Writing was practiced for many centuries before
books were written, just as the book in manuscript was three or
four thousand years old before the invention of printing. The
oldest writing was monumental and was inscribed upon flat-sided
stone pillars or cylinders of stone or brick, as among the
ancient Babylonians, or upon stone slabs, as were the
hieroglyphic inscriptions of the ancient Egyptians and the Ten
Commandments; upon clay tablets which were afterwards baked to
give them durability, like the tiles with wedge-shaped writing
upon them known as Assurbanipal's "library," or the
famous Tel-el-Amarna tablets; upon metal plates of copper or
lead-the works of the old Greek poet Hesiod were inscribed on
lead plates and deposited in the Temple of the Muses in Boeotia;
upon wooden planks-the earliest legislation of the Greeks, known
as the Laws of Solon, was so recorded, and carefully
The wooden tablets were covered with white gypsum, and on
them the words were written, possibly with red paint, which was
considered sacred. In Athens, during the Pelopponesian Wars and
later, such tablets were used for public notices. Old Orphic
songs were also written on wood tablets. For ordinary use, bark,
especially bark from lime trees, palm leaves, and the like, were
employed. In the Temple of theMuses on the Helicon there was
preserved an old example of the Works and Days of Hesiod
which was written on lead tablets, despite the fact that this
material, though cheap, was not popular. As the need for writing
grew with the increase in education, the skin of animals was
utilized; this had long been in use as a writing material in the
Orient. Herodotus ascribes its use to the Phoenicians.
The use of wax tablets, that is, a thin film of wax, usually
black or green, spread upon a hard, white surface (hence the
word a/bum), commonly a thin sheet of wood, upon which
the writing was, as it were, engraved with a stylus made of
metal or bone, was widespread in antiquity. The apparatus
resembled a child's slate, the album being enclosed within a
frame the ridge of which protected the writing when two or more
such frames were employed, which were held together by a cord
run through a hole perforated in the corner of the frame. Such a
combination of tablets was, in Roman times, known as a codex,
literally a "block" since a pile of such tablets
resembled a block of wood. If the tablets were small, the block
of them was called codicilli-a little codex.
According to the number of tablets a distinction was made
between codices dup/ices, trip/ices, quinquip/ices, or mu/tip/ices-in
Greek polyptyeha, a word which passed into the Latin
language. The two outside faces of the codex were left blank and
covered with leather or boards. This is the remote origin of
bookbinding. But wax tablets were never used for books, and
hence their history is alien to that of libraries. They were
used for keeping accounts, casual notes, correspondence not
meant to be preserved. The first draft also of many a work in
prose or poetry was indited upon wax tablets, the composition
later being transcribed on papyrus or parchment for permanent
record. Small papyrus rolls, in like manner, were used for short
Papyrus & Writing
But substances like these were too heavy and too cumbrous for
systematic transcription, and were not flexible. The successive
parts could not be bound together like the leaves of a book. The
earliest flexible material of importance was papyrus, from which
the word "paper" is derived. The oldest known papyrus
manuscript is of at least 3000 B.C. The papyrus plant was an
aquatic plant, now nearly extinct, which once grew in profusion
in the Nile Valley.
Papyrus was made from the pith of the stems, gummed strips of
which were laid in two transverse layers, and then crushed and
rolled into thin wafers, much as the housewife makes piecrust.
When dried and trimmed along the edges, the leaves thus formed
were pasted or glued end to end in a long strip, with the lines
on each sheet running parallel with the length of the strip.
Each end of the strip was attached to a light round wooden rod
and the whole rolled up, beginning with the last page, so that
the first page would be under the eye of the reader when he
began to unroll it for reading purposes. This was the earliest
form of the true book or roll or cylinder and was what the
Romans called a volumen, from the verb volvere, to
roll, from which also the English word vo/ume comes.
"The Ionians, who had the Egyptian trade mainly in their
hands and who doubtless first began to use papyrus) called it
'skins.' Herodotus V, 58, in explanation of this says that
formerly owing to the scarcity of papyrus they had used the
skins of sheep and goats."
A READER HOLDING A ROLL OF PAPYRUS
It was convenient to have the columns narrow, for otherwise
an unwieldy length of the roll would have to be unrolled. In the
Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century manuscript, the
columns are not so much as four inches wide. The
scribe began to write at the left end of the roll; that is, when
he began to write he turned the roll so that the unrolled part
was at his right hand. The reader held the roll in his hands by
the umbilici or wooden rods with handles upon which the
roll was wound, and continually rolled up with his left hand the
part he had read. When he had finished reading the work, the
roll, of course, had to be unrolled and rolled up again, for
otherwise the next reader would have to read the book backward.
The first sheet and the last sheet of the roll, which were
affixed to the umbilici, naturally met with greater wear
and tear than the body of the manuscript.
Accordingly these parts were reenforced by double sheets
pasted together. Even with this precaution, however, the ends of
the roll especially were likely to become frayed and be torn off
and lost. This explains why some works have come down to us
which end abruptly, even in the middle of a sentence. The most
remarkable example of this sort of loss is that of the Gospel of
Mark, 16:9-20. The end of the roll containing it probably was
torn off and lost, either from the autograph of the apostle or
from an early copy of it, and no direct trace remains of the
original conclusion. The Codex Sinaiticus terminates
abruptly with verse 8. All the other Marcian manuscripts append
twelve additional verses, but these renderings do not always
"One or two," says Turner, "preserve what is
obviously a makeshift, written merely to give an appearance of a
proper termination, and containing no new facts. All the rest
append twelve additional verses-the recently discovered Freer
Manuscript of the Gospels expands them into fourteen--the provenance
of which was unknown until Mr. F. C. Conybeare discovered in
an Armenian manuscript a title separating these verses from the
rest of the Gospel under the words 'Of Aristion the Elder' . . .
and there is now no reason to doubt that either he himself, or
someone else out of the material left by him, filled up the
missing conclusion of St. Mark's Gospel at so early a date that
his supplement has found its way into almost all codices that
have come down to us."
Some New Testament scholars regard the last chapter of the
Epistle to the Romans as a fragment of the Epistle to the
Ephesians. It is manifestly out of place. A number of those
persons to whom Paul sent greetings could not have been in Rome
at the time when he was laboring in Asia Minor and Greece.
Priscilla and Aquila are clearly the Priscilla and Aquila
mentioned in Acts as having been expelled from Rome, and as
meeting Paul in Corinth and preceding him to Ephesus. The long
list of greetings in Romans i6 indicates that the letter which
contained them must have been written to the Christian
congregation of some city where Paul had long dwelt and in which
he had many friends.
The abrupt conclusions of St. Luke's Gospel and of the Acts
of the Apostles have been ingeniously explained as due to the
size of the papyrus rolls used by the writers thereof, who were
limited by the length of the roll. If the writer underestimated
the length of his narrative and came to the end of the roll
before he had calculated to do so, unless he elected to fill an
entire new roll he was compelled to summarize what he wished to
write in conclusion in as brief a space as was at his command.
If he wished to continue his narration on another roll, the
necessarily abbreviated narrative at the close of the first roll
would naturally be expanded at the beginning of the second. This
reasoning probably explains why Luke compressed the story of the
Ascension into two verses, and why at the end of Acts Paul's
residence in Rome for two years is condensed into two verses.
Antiquity already had lost part of many manuscripts. Diodorus
(xvi. 3) sought in vain for four or five rolls of Theopompus' History;
Quintilian could find only the fourth book of the rhetorical
treatise, Ad Herennium; Suetonius complained that
"magna pars intercepta" of the Grammar of
Servius Nicanor. Eusebius (vi. 24. i) was unable td acquire
twenty-two of Jerome's writings. St. Jerome well knew the hazard
attached to preservation of volumina.
Practically, there was no limit to the length of a roll. Some
ancient Egyptian papyri are more than 150 feet in length, and in
Greece the complete works of such authors as Homer and Herodotus
were at first written upon a single roll. But such huge rolls
were inconvenient to hold. Accordingly, the Alexandrian scholars
adopted the practice of cutting up long rolls into shorter
lengths . . . to cut, from which the Latin word tomus and
our English word tome are derived. Originally the term
had nothing to do with "ponderous tomes"-in fact, they
were not ponderous. The motive for dividing literary works into
books was to reduce the size of the rolls. No Homeric papyrus
yet found contains more than two books. The manuscript of
Aristotle's Politics illustrates the division of a work
into convenient lengths, and the employment of several scribes.
There we find, at the end of the first century A.D., a
division into four tolls, each of which was written by a
When the substitution of the codex for the older roll came
into general usage, it was possible to have a whole series of
books, or even an entire work together. The parchment codex was
devised in the first century A.D., and eventually supplanted the
papyrus roll. By the fourth century the parchment codex was
general everywhere as the usual form of the book.
* * * *
When, therefore, Irenaeus at the end of the second century
writes of the four Gospels as the divinely provided evidence of
Christianity, and the number four as almost axiomatic, it is now
possible to believe that he may have been accustomed to the
sight of volumes in which all four were contained."
In the third century, pagan works were still generally
written on rolls, while the codex was the popular form of
Christian books. The codex was certainly of Roman, not of Greek
origin, and one of the great contributions of Latin culture to
world culture. The papyrus codex lasted longest in Egypt,
because Egypt was the home of the papyrus plant.
All papyrus came from Egypt. There were many kinds,
qualities, and forms of it. Pliny the Elder in his Natural
History, xiii. 74, distinguishes nine different sorts: (I) Regia
(after the fall of independent Egypt sometimes known as Augusta),
which was a large sheet; (2) Livia, of the same
dimension, but thinner; (3) Hieratica, a large paper of
fine quality distinguishel for its whiteness, much fancied by
the priest class, with whom white was a sacred color; (4) Amphitheatrica,
named from a paper factory near the amphitheater in
Alexandria; (5) Fanniana, which was manufactured at Rome;
(6) Saitica, an inferior paper made at Sais in Egypt; (7)
Taeniotica, a common sort made atAlexandria, sold by
weight instead of by the sheet; (8) Emporetica, wrapping
paper; and (9) Charta Claudia, a strong paper in large
sheets capable of bearing writmg on both sides and fabricated by
command of the emperor Claudius.
Unless the page was small it was customary to write in two or
three columns to a page. In the time of the Roman Republic,
however, government documents were not so written, but transversa
charta, that is to say, in long lines filling the whole face
of the page. In general a charta was written only on one side,
and Horace (Ep. i. 20.17) and Martial (IV. 86. i.)
interestingly inform us that children were taught to write on
such discarded sheets. Sometime~ the old writing was sponged off
and the sheet used as a palimpsest.
Egyptian papyrus came to Greece quite early, through second
or third hand; it is possible that there was direct
communication between the two lands even before Psammetichus.
It is not without significance that precisely at the time
when the communication between the Greeks and the Egyptians was
at its highest, literature there developed richly and many-sidely.
The development of prose literature, a medium destined for a
reading public, made for the utilization of papyrus. Naturally,
when the export of papyrus from Egypt was forbidden, its price
was high. Papyrus, however, was not suitable for preservation;
for, aside from its destruction through moths and bookworms, it
crumbles easily, and the result is gaps which impair the
manuscript. It was an advance when animal skins were utilized
for the library at Pergamum, and the preparation of this writing
material had greater care. Parchment, however, owing to its
greater expense, never succeeded in ousting papyrus.
Parchment Replaces Papyrus-- From Roll to Codex
The skins of sacrificial animals like sheep and goats were
early employed by the priests of all the religions of antiquity
for the writing of prayers, rituals, and liturgical matter.
Indeed, leather may have been used even before papyrus. Livy
records that the treaty between Tarquinius Superbus and the
people of Gabii was recorded upon the leather cover of a shield.
But the lightness and cheapness of papyrus made it of almost
universal use in the Greco-Roman world. The revival of leather
in classical antiquity was due to an improvement in the method
of preparing the skins by which it was possible to write upon
both sides of them. Ancient tradition alleges that the invention
was made in the reign of King Eumenes 11(197-159 B.C.) of
Pergamum and was owing to the fact that. the Pharaoh of Egypt
raised the price of papyrus to a prohibitive degree. This
is mere legend, but it points to the fact that Pergamum was
famous for the making of pergamena, from which the word
"parchment" comes. But parchment was not popular in
antiquity. It was more costly than papyrus and thicker in
texture. A parchment book would have seemed a curiosity to
The introduction of parchment popularized the book in the
format familiar to us. Parchment leaves could not be bound end
to end like sheets of papyrus except by sewing them together,
and the long strip would have been too unwieldy to roll into a
volume, and the stitches, moreover, would make disfiguring
ridges. Accordingly, parchment sheets were put together like the
pages of a modern book and the whole was bound between board
covers. Its form then so much resembled a block of wood that the
Romans, as has been noted above, called such a book a codex.
The size of the codex was determined by the way in which the
parchment sheet was folded; for it was not cut up into pages by
the scribe or the binder, but was creased and folded so as to
make four or eight or twelve or sixteen pages, according to the
size of the skin and the dimensions of the proposed book. It is
thus that the terms quarto, octavo, duodecimo originated.
The ordinary book was made up of quires usually of eight leaves
(sixteen pages) composed of four folded sheets; hence the term folio.
The quires were numbered or lettered in alphabetical
sequence, but the practice of numbering the pages did not obtain
until very late in the Middle Ages. At the bottom of each page
the first words of the next page were appended, to guide the
binder in putting the parts together.
As the flesh side of a parchment was always smoother and
almost white, and the hair side rougher and a light yellow in
color, in the makeup of the codex care was taken that the colors
of every two adjacent pages should be the same. An added
convenience was that the loss of any sheet could be at once
perceived by virtue of the contrasted colors which would result
if any sheet was removed. Vellum was a superior kind of
parchment, being thinner and smoother because made from the
skins of young lambs or kids, and was often no thicker than
ordinary paper. It was polished with pumice stone.
In general a scribe used a sheet large enough to be folded or
double folded so as to make four or eight pages as desired. The
double-leaf folio was the base of the quaternion, as the
quaternion formed the base of the volume. The parchment was
first spread out flat upon a table, its edges trimmed, and then
with a rule and compass the writer marked the lines along which
the parchment was to be folded. This marking was done upon the
hair side because that side was tougher and could bear the point
of the marking instrument; and moreover, the flesh side, being
more delicate, would show the lines in relief upon the opposite
side and so obviate double marking. When doubled, the parchment
was folded so that the first page would be flesh side, the
second and third pages hair side, the fourth and fifth pages
flesh side, and so on to the last page, which, like the first,
would be a flesh-side page. Thus, when open the codex displayed
two pages of uniform kind, flesh-side pages facing each other
and hair-side pages facing each other. This was the quaternion
(Lat., quaternio, a group of four).
Strange as it may seem, parchment was not widely used in
antiquity although it was more durable than papyrus, less likely
to become frayed on the edges, capable of being written upon on
both sides, accommodated longer lines, and the codex form was
more convenient to hold in the hand and to read than the volumen.
Finally, unlike papyrus, parchment could be used again by
erasing what had been first written on it. Such a manuscript was
called a palimpsest or "twice used" manuscript, which
is the literal meaning of the word. Of course, the second
writing was not so legible and the effect of the page was not so
pleasing to the eye, because some of the ink of the original
writing had sunk deep into the fibers of the parchment and could
not be entirely removed. But the practice had an economic
argument in its favor. Valuable classical works have been
recovered from palimpsests, for in the Middle Ages sermons and
lives of saints were more popular than pagan classical
literature, so that the latter was erased to make room for the
former. But by the use of chemical reagents the original version
has been restored.
In classical times, parchment was chiefly used for accounts,
short notes and letters, and the like. The Roman poet Martial
(A.D. 40-102) is the first writer who mentions works of
literature inscribed upon parchment. The fourth century, which
witnessed the triumph of the Church, also witnessed the
transition from papyrus to vellum and from roll to codex. But
the use of the vellum codex does not go back as far as the time
of the composition and first circulation of the books of the New
Testament) for down to the middle of the third century the
papyrus roll was almost the universal form in which books were
It has been said that the parchment codex owed its
introduction and popularity almost wholly to the influence of
the Church; but this is an exaggeration, though it must be
admitted that the Church early expressed a preference for
parchment and the codex form of the book over the papyrus roll.
The more durable nature of parchment recommended it to
grammarians and rhetors and to their students; also, parchment
was the cheaper material. The representations of ancient art
permit us to follow the stages of the change by which papyrus
was gradually supplanted by parchment and the roll by the codex.
By the fifth century the substitution was complete.
In 372 the papyrus manuscripts in the library of
Constantinople were transcribed upon parchment and converted
from volumina to codices, as had already been done at
Caesarea.In 426, Valentinian III ordained that legal citations
thenceforth must be made from parchment codices and not from
The Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the New
Testament, and the Vulgate or Latin translation of the Bible
made by St. Jerome about A.D. 400 were written on parchment and
bound in codex form instead of being in papyrus rolls.
The progress and final triumph of Christianity assured the
victory of parchment. The Theodosian Code of Roman law
proclaimed by the Emperor Theodosius II in A.D. 438 and the
great Corpus Juris of Justinian in the sixth century seem
never to have been published except in codex form. Thus between
the fourth and the sixth centuries the relative positions of
papyrus and parchment were reversed. In the early Middle Ages
papyrus was only used for short notes, accounts, and unimportant
matters of record, while parchment was more and more used for
writings on theology, law, literary works, and finally for every
sort of record. Papyrus became more and more obsolete and
finally disappeared from use; it was employed longer in medieval
Italy than anywhere else. The latest example of a papyrus
document outside of Spain is 1057. The use of papyrus outside of
Italy and Spain had all but vanished by the ninth century.
We have little information on the relative prices of papyrus
and parchment.According to Birt, papyrus cost more than
parchment. This may have been so in Greec~Birt relies on an
Athenian inscription of 407 B.C.--but it cannot have been true
of the Roman imperial epoch, when enormous quantities of papyrus
were imported from Egypt and there were numerous chartarii or
paper dealers. The government owned a huge paper warehouse, the horrea
chartaria, for the storage of papyrus used in the offices of
the administration. When Constantinople was founded, a similar
warehouse was established there. In small provincial towns,
however, there was sometimes a shortage of papyrus. Pliny the
Younger once (xiii. 89) complained of an "inopia chartae"
when away from Rome.
The scribes or copyists were educated and trained slaves.
Those working on papyrus or parchment were called librarii, those
using wax tablets scribae cerarii. Stenographers were
Pens, Ink, & Illustrations
Pens were made of reeds, the best quality coming from Egypt
and Cnidus. Pliny (Hist. Nat. xxxv. 41-43) gives a long
account of the kinds of ink used in antiquity. Ancient ink was
generally made of lampblack mixed with gum. It was very black
and of great durability, but it did not sink into the papyrus or
parchment and so could be readily erased. This opened the door
to forgery, and Pliny informs us that vinegar was often mixed
with the ink. Sometimes vitriolic substances were used, but the
effect of these was to cancel the lampblack, so that the ink
became paler and paler with lapse of time. Both black and red
ink were used, but the latter only for titles and rubrics--hence
the term. Egyptian ink was made of soot mingled with gum and
water. Sepia, the black liquid ejected by the cuttlefish, which
was common in the Mediterranean, was also employed. Red ink was
manufactured from ruddle or red ocher. A plumb line and compass
were used to measure columns, and a rule for making transverse
lines. De luxe books were decorated with illuminated capitals
done in gold or silver or tints.
As Bradley informs us: "The principle of producing a
number of impressions of the same figure or picture in a book
was known to the old illuminators, and used long before the
fifteenth century.. .. The method of taking transfers, either by
stamps or stencils, of frequently recurring subjects was
practised in the twelfth century, and probably also as early as
the time of the Emperor Augustus. . . . Delicate plates of brass
were used to produce a sort of pattern and enable the
illuminator to make his capitals of equal size."
The Romans understood the art of illustrating books with
portraits. Pliny mentions that Varro wrote the lives of seven
hundred illustrious Romans which he adorned with portraits of
them. And we learn from Cornelius Nepos that Cicero's friend
Atticus was the author of a work on the deeds of famous Romans,
which he ornamented with portraits. The portraits in the work of
Pomponius Atticus mentioned by Cornelius Nepos, and in those of
Varro referred to by Pliny the Elder, were reproduced in
duplicate by some sort of mechanical contrivance like a stencil
or cut-out brass or copper plate.
Illustrated manuscripts were to be found only where pictorial
representation was necessary for the understanding of the work,
as in the astronomical handbook according to Eudoxus, in the
obscene poem of Philaenis, in the anatomical work of Aristotle.
Botanical works could hardly dispense with illustrations, as is
shown by Dioscorides. The writings of the tactician
Evangelus, which Philopoemen eagerly studied, had drawings.
Nicomachus' Elegy on the famous painters seems to have
possessed portraits. Generally the author would himself add the
illustrations; sometimes they would be made by another hand, as
in the astronomical poem of Aratus and the geographical work of
Ptolemy. On the other hand, the pictures in the Milanese
manuscript of the Iliad from the fourth or fifth century
A.D., as well as those in the Venetian manuscript, continue an
artistic tradition. Probably there were similar works in the
Reading Aloud & In Silence
It was customary in antiquity to read aloud and in company.
So common was this practice that it has been absurdly said the
ancients were unable to comprehend written words unless they
were spoken, so that a reader, even if all alone, pronounced
every word as he read. It has even been said that reading in
silence first obtained in the monasteries where the rule of
silence was enforced! But an educated man in ancient times, as
today, read in silence when he chose. Augustine has a striking
description of St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the busiest men of
the fourth century: "When he read his eyes were riveted on
the page and his mind tore open the meaning of the words. But no
sound escaped his lips. Often when we had come to see him, we
would observe him reading there in silence."
And who does not know St. Augustine's moving account of his
conversion? How he left his friend Alypius, who had long been
urging him to come to Christ, and cast him--self down under a
fig tree and heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of a boy
or girl, singing and oft repeating: "Take up and read.
Takeup and read." Checking the torrent of his tears, lie
rose, interpreting it as no other than a command from God to
open the Book and read the first words he might find; so he
seized, opened, and "in silence" read that section on
which his eyes first fell. And the words were these: "Not
in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness,
not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus
The Division of Books
It is generally assumed that the division of larger works
into separate books originated in Alexandria. This custom,
however, is much older. The Iliad and the Odyssey are
in twenty-four books. The custom was. known in Aristotle's time;
the proof is the habit, which one finds in Aristotle, of
employing the twenty-four letters in the alphabet for divisional
Such division was especially necessary in prose works.
Herodotus himself planned to divide his work into distinct
parts. Thucydides is divided into eight books. The Anabasis
has seven parts, and each successive division has a brief
summary of the last one. Plato's Politics is in ten
books, and this division may have been made by Plato himself.
It was Isocrates' school which was mainly responsible for
this practice. Ephorus gave each separate book a special title.
From Aristotle's time this custom was generally observed, even
in the Roman literature, as in Naevius' poem on the Punic Wars.
Polybius, Diodorus, Josephus, and Appian followed these
examples. Certain numbers, such as 7, or 24, were favorites for
division. Despite the expense of papyrus, it did not necessarily
follow that each division was complete in one papyrus roll;
sometimes it ended in the middle of a second roll.169 The
ancients distinguished "books," but did not subdivide
books into chapters. This practice is modern, or at least dates
from the Renaissance. Valerius Soranus, a medical friend of
Cicero, seems to have been the first writer who provided a table
of contents. It was imitated by Pliny the Elder, the first book
of whose Natural History is nothing but a table of
Just as books were divided into parts, so also there began at
this period the custom of Counting the lines of a work in order
to determine the extent ~f the book. This was first started by
the poets; later the same care was applied to the prose works.
Theopompus already gave the number of his lines, and Josephus,
at the end of his Jewish Antiquities, lists not only the
number of books, but also the lines. This method served for all
bibliographical purposes; hence the number of lines was
carefully registered not only in the catalogues of libraries,
but also in the manuscripts themselves. It was a little more
difficult with prose, as the width of column in the papyrus
rolls varied, and so did the size of the writing. As the
copyists did not copy precisely the same number of lines in the
same way, the number naturally varied with each copyist.
Possibly, in order to save time recounting the new copy, the
original number of lines was usually given. For example, the
numbers given about the Attic orators refer to the parchment
manuscripts, where the lines are larger on the average, and not
to the papyrus rolls.
The number of lines in a book was an important point. Modern
bibliography presupposes the art of printing; it describes one
specimen and thereby automatically describes thousands, the
entire edition; the buyer can therefore easily determine whether
his copy fulfills all his requirements. The prospective buyer of
a book in classical times had the same desire; but, of course,
he had no conception of editions. Occasionally from ten to
twenty slaves would write the same text, which was dictated to
them; but in that manner, one could hardly say that an edition
was created; it was simply a matter of ten to twenty individual
copies, of which each one would have its individual mistakes.
Every copy, therefore, had to be individually proofread. If one
wanted to play safe, every copy had to be compared word for word
with either the original or a standard copy. That was a very
arduous undertaking, especially when a book of any size was
concerned; an occasional orthographical error did not excite
much comment. The buyer, however, needed to have at least the
assurance that the copyist did not skip entire sections of the
text from sheer laziness. For this reason, he had the number of
lines of the original or "standard edition" specified
in the copy.
These are problems of stichometry. The motive for enumerating
the number of words--and even letters--in a book obviously was
to protect the text from omissions or interpolations. The
librarian had to be able to see at the first glance whether a
copy was complete or defective, whether a text, to be purchased,
agreed in whole and in its parts with the normal or standard
copy. A careful author took care to establish these
statistics. Theopompus fixed his orations at 20,000 words, his
historical works at 150,000. Josephus at the end of his Archaeologia,
bk. 30, informs the reader that its length is 6o,ooo stichoi.
Polybius established the stichometry of his History, and
the proemium to the Digest declares it to have 150,000
In the Alexandrian Library the tags to the rolls, in addition
to the title, indicated the number of books and the number of
lines in each book. In the eyes of a publisher these figures
were important, for from them he could estimate the size and
cost of a book.
ROLL BOOKS IN A
The word "bibliotheca" in Greek and Latin signified
a place in which scrolls were kept, hence a storeroom for
papyrus rolls, and hence a library. It is a compound word . . .
and each part has its significance. The Greek word for
"book" was . . . answering to the Latin liber, while
theca . . . meant the bookshelf.
Library Arrangement--Catalogues & Bibliographies
Books do not make a library until they have been arranged in
some sort of order. Hence the formation of a catalogue. Some
ancient writer compared the catalogue of the Alexandrian Library
to the thread of Ariadne through the Labyrinth.
The founding of the Alexandrian Library under Ptolemy
Philadeiphus is a fact of the greatest significance. This not
only saved literature and preserved it, but also opened it up
for study. After the masses of manuscripts were classified by
five of the librarians who fill the great period--Zenodotus, who
invented textual criticism, Apollonius, Eratosthenes,
Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus of Samothrace--the
bibliographical activity was begun.
This vast work was undertaken by Callimachus, with the help
of others. His catalogue of the Alexandrian Library contains a
systematic and critical list, according to the shelves, of books
in the library. Of each work there was registered the title, the
number of lines, the first words, and, where possible, notes on
the real or supposed author; for Callimachus was definitely
interested in establishing the true authors. But there was
neither time nor place for a thorough investigation and
analysis. If we take the number to be 90,000 rolls, there were,
on the average, 6oo listed in each book of the catalogue; an4 if
we count on the average 1500 to 2000 lines in each book of the
catalogue, we find that each separate item got only a very few
lines. Hence the criticism was also summary and superficial. It
is uncertain whether there were short notices on the lives of
At any rate, here was a solid foundation for a history of
literature. How many books there were at this time can be
realized when one considers that the Alexandrian Library had
90,000 rolls, excluding duplicates. This number refers to the
catalogue of Callimachus, since it was only after his
classification was completed that the counting of the duplicates
may have begun. It is possible that some writings escaped the
notice of the classifier. Later, with the great activity in
literary pursuits, the number of writings continued to grow.
Callimachus' list was later completed and supplemented by
Aristophanes of Byzantium.
Similar catalogues were made by the Pergamene scholars in
their library. Others later undertook critical bibliographical
articles on individual authors, as Andronicus and Adrastus on
Aristotle and Theophrastus, and Galen on their own writings.
These book catalogues became the chief aids in the
bibliographical and literary historical studies. The catalogues
of the writings of Greek poets, orators, philosophers, and
others, which have been transmitted to us through Diogenes
Laertius, Suidas, and others, generally go back to Alexandria.
We also possess, on an Egyptian papyrus, a fragment of a
catalogue which seems to have contained philosophical works.
Other book lists we owe to the custom of inscribing the writings
of deceased authors on their gravestones; sometimes statues of
authors would have such lists, as the well-known statue of
Euripides in the Villa Albani (now in Paris) and that of Bishop
Hippolytus in Rome.
We are ill informed concerning the administration of the
large libraries of Greece and Rome. We have ruins of buildings
and fragments of catalogues, besides some inscriptions of
librarians; but from all these facts we can deduce but little
concerning the interior operation of the libraries. We only know
that the most famous savants were in charge of the library of
Alexandria; Callimachus was not one of them.
It is to a fortunate coincidence, namely, the discovery of
Papyrus Oxyrynchus in the second century A.D., that we
owe a list of Alexandrian librarians. The papyrus
mentions only a pupil of Callimachus; the librarians are
Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, Apollonius of
Alexandria, and Aristarchus of Alexandria. Bureau
chiefs in the Alexandrian Library were called procuratotes, lesser
employees bibliothecarii, assistants were designated as a
bibliotheca, and copyists as antiquarii. The
archivists were known as bibliophulakes. The
ordinary attendants were slaves owned by the state (pub/ici).
They were so numerous that they had their own doctor.
These procurators were never directly called librarians for
the reason that they were government officials who also had
other duties, especially financial. But they were not mere
finance officials, for the same men were also imperial
secretaries for the Greek correspondence, or councilors of the
emperor's studies (a studiis), and hence learned men.
They belonged to the class of knights and received a salary of
60,000 sesterces. Real grammarians are mentioned as library
administrators; as, for instance, Dionysius of Alexandria.
The identity of Callimachus is not certain. It is commonly
supposed that he is identical with the Alexandrian poet who
flourished between 310 and 240 B.C. Whoever he may have
been, there is high probability that the Pinakes represents
his individual enterprise rather than the institutional effort
of the great Alexandrian Library. It is not known whether it was
simply a catalogue of the Alexandrian Library, or a union
catalogue of the principal libraries of that metropolis. In this
famous but, unfortunately, lost work, Callimachus distinguished
five classifications of subject-matter: (1) Poetry, (2) History,
(3) Philosophy, (4) Oratory, (5) Miscellaneous.
As literature developed and spread far, the interest of the
readers had to be considered. In the earlier period, book titles
were not known, since writers wrote only for a narrow circle.
But when books were written for a reading public, they had to be
titled so as to enable the reader to differentiate them. In
early Greece this was not necessary. The names of the epic poems
are old, but come, not from the writers, but from the masses.
Generally the names are brief, such as Iliad, Odyssey,
Thebais. Sometimes the name refers to the home of the poet.
For the majority of lyric poems there was no need of special
names. The archon as well as the public knew the names before
they were publicly presented, and, after the judges gave their
decisions, the name of the poet as well as of the play was
announced. Later, persons like Theocritus chose the titles of
their poems themselves.
Prose, too, lacked titles in olden times. The author who
wrote one book would sign his name to it. Men like Thucydides
briefly described the contents of their works; the first chapter
of each book summarizes the contents of the book just preceding.
When literature became more complex an inscription of the
contents of a book became necessary. At the time of the
Peloponnesian War, when literary activity was great, almost no
book appeared without a title. Thucydides, sticking to the old
form, is an exception. Isocrates, in his dedication to Philip,
specifically refers to titles of legal works. Sometimes the
original title is confused with a later one; hence double
titles. Sometimes there is great uncertainty concerning titles,
as there is in the works of Aristotle. To attract attention,
writers sometimes used striking, and tasteless, titles. often
the title refers to only one section of the book, generally the
beginning; for example, Xanophon's Anabasis and the
Education of Cyrus. Not infrequently the title is vague
Sometimes two different works would have the same title; they
would be distinguished by calling one "great," the
other "small." Homer's Iliad is the Great,
the Iliad by Lesches is the Little Iliad. the
simplest catalogue was a mere book list, sometimes without
specification of authors. But the Greeks and Romans knew both
the classified catalogue and the bibliographical catalogue . . .
(pinax). In the latter the initial words of the book, the
author, and the number of lines were indicated. the initial
words of the work often constituted the title.
In papyrus rolls (volumina) the title was written upon
the tag attached to the roll. In codices it was affixed at
the end of the work, instead of on the first page as with us,
and was known as the colophon. Neither in antiquity nor in the
Middle Ages was there any fixed custom in the making of titles.
Vergil seems to have called his great epic Aeneas, as we
say Hamlet or Macbeth. Tacitus' work on the
manners and customs of the German was sometimes styled merely
De Germania, sometimes De moribus Germanorum, and
sometimes De moribus ac situ Germanorum.
Sources: "Various Technical Matters"
(Excerpts) from James Westfall Thompson's Ancient Libraries.
University of California Press, 1940.
* * *
* * * *
The Last Holiday: A Memoir
By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King's birthday ended up becoming a national holiday ("The Last Holiday because America can't afford to have another national holiday"), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Gil uses Lennon's violent end as a brilliant parallel to Dr King's assassination and as a biting commentary on the constraints that sometimes lead to newspapers getting things wrong. —Jamie Byng, Guardian / Gil_reads_"Deadline" (audio) / Gil Scott-Heron
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Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
By 1991, following the disintegration first of the Soviet bloc and then of the Soviet Union itself, the United States was left standing tall as the only global super-power. Not only the 20th but even the 21st century seemed destined to be the American centuries. But that super-optimism did not last long. During the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, the stock market bubble and the costly foreign unilateralism of the younger Bush presidency, as well as the financial catastrophe of 2008 jolted America—and much of the West—into a sudden recognition of its systemic vulnerability to unregulated greed. Moreover, the East was demonstrating a surprising capacity for economic growth and technological innovation. That prompted new anxiety about the future, including even about America’s status as the leading world power. This book is a response to a challenge. It argues that without an America that is economically vital, socially appealing, responsibly powerful, and capable of sustaining an intelligent foreign engagement, the geopolitical prospects for the West could become increasingly grave. The ongoing changes in the distribution of global power and mounting global strife make it all the more essential that America does not retreat into an ignorant garrison-state mentality or wallow in cultural hedonism but rather becomes more strategically deliberate and historically enlightened in its global engagement with the new East.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 4 February 2012