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Skyhorse Publishing
The Library: An Illustrated History

The Library: An Illustrated History

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The Library tells the story of libraries and of the changing form and function of the book from era to era, whether clay tablets, parchment sheets, papyrus scrolls, glossy paper, recording tape or silicone chips. At the heart of the story of libraries and books is the story of the reader, who also has changed from era to era. Profusely illustrated, with fascinating is a comprehensive look at libraries that will interest book lovers and librarians.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602397064
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 07/27/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stuart A. P. Murray has been an author and editor for almost thirty years, specializing in American history. The author of thirty-four books, including the award-winning America’s Song: The Story of “Yankee Doodle,” and books on the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Vietnam War. He lives in Petersburgh, NY.

Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of the bestselling book on book collecting, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Donald G. Davies, JR., editor of Libraries & Culture, is the author of several books and serves as emeritus professor at the University of Texas, School of Information. Previously, Dr. Davis worked in the University of California, Berkeley Library.

Read an Excerpt



On a December night in 1853, gangs of diggers labored with pick and shovel by the light of oil lamps to fill baskets and handcarts with sandy rubble. An ancient palace was thought to be under their feet, part of the ruins of Nineveh, capital of mighty Assyria from the ninth to seventh centuries BCE. Nineveh had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 BCE, razed, and left to the desert wind and sand.

The men worked after dark, in secret, because this ground was reserved for a competing French archaeologist — one who had neglected it too long but who could expel them if he found them here. Directing the laborers, who were from nearby Mosul, was Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910), an Assyrian Christian and a native of that city. Rassam, who had studied at Oxford, was funded by the British Museum, which financed several ongoing excavations and took delivery of the best finds. If Rassam's diggers found something important, the established archaeologists' code would permit them to keep excavating, and the museum could claim first choice of any discoveries.

In a memoir, Rassam wrote about his worries that night as he watched the men work and as morning approached. If he were evicted before finding a structure, he would be accused of poaching, would be ridiculed, and the museum trustees surely would fire him. Then, there came the shout, "Sooar!" meaning "images." "[T]o the great delight of all we hit upon a marble wall," Rassam wrote.

The work continued, excitement mounting. A "beautiful bas-relief in a perfect state of preservation" appeared, showing a king carved in alabaster, armed with bow and spear, standing in a chariot as he hunted lions. The digging soon revealed a long, narrow room, a "saloon," as Rassam termed it.

Suddenly, an embankment attached to the sculpture fell away and fully "exposed to view that enchanting spectacle." Rassam felt the excitement surge "through the whole party like electricity":

They all rushed to see the new discovery, and having gazed on the bas-relief with wonder, they collected together, and began to dance and sing my praises, in the tune of their war-song, with all their might. Indeed, for a moment I did not know which was the most pleasant feeling that possessed me, the joy of my faithful men or the finding of the new palace.

That momentous find would lead to more sculptures and larger halls, to entire city walls with entrances paved with marble, decorated by carved rosettes and the lotus. So began the unearthing, shovel by shovel, of the palace of Assurbanipal (625-587 BCE), last ruler of Assyria. In the king's "lion-hunt room" Rassam would find all the walls covered with carved alabaster scenes, and also something less dramatic:

[I]n the center of the same saloon I discovered the library of Assur-bani-pal, consisting of inscribed terra-cotta tablets of all shapes and sizes; the largest of these, which happened to be in better order, were mostly stamped with seals, and some inscribed with hieroglyphic and Phoenician characters.

In the presence of such exquisite bas-relief scenes, it was no wonder Rassam mentioned only briefly the terra-cotta tablets. These, however, were part of the royal library, which would eventually number 30,000 tablets and fragments. This would prove to be the earliest-known "cataloged" library, organized into sections: government records, historical chronicles, poetry, science, mythological and medical texts, royal decrees and grants, divinations, omens, and hymns to the gods.

Scholars would learn vastly more about the ancient past from those unobtrusive stacks of tablets with their wedge-shaped writing than from all the glorious sculptures and palace rooms discovered in the long-buried ruins of Nineveh.

The first libraries appeared five thousand years ago in Southwest Asia's "Fertile Crescent," the agricultural region reaching from Mesopotamia's Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the valley of the Nile in Africa. Known as the "cradle of civilization," the Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of writing, sometime before 3000 BCE.

The earliest writing was done on various materials: bones, skins, bamboo, clay, and papyrus. It consisted of images (pictographs) representing a subject or idea. From the start, written documents needed storage and organization — libraries.

In ancient Mesopotamia, written documents were clay tablets inscribed by using a stylus when the clay was damp. Cuneiform, the name for this technique of ancient writing, comes from cunea, Latin for "wedge," because the characters were made by cutting small wedges into the clay. Groups of wedges indicated words or terms. At least fifteen ancient Mesopotamian languages have been discovered on tablets inscribed with cuneiform.

The earliest clay tablets recorded business transactions and government matters, such as taxes paid and owed, armies raised and supplied. In time, literature developed — epics and myths, as well as scientific, historical, and philosophical tracts. Clay tablets contain the ancients' knowledge of astronomy, geography, and medicine, and reveal the earliest myths, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the creation story of Babylon, Mesopotamia's great city. Clay tablets were the first books.

About an inch thick, tablets came in various shapes and sizes. Mud-like clay was placed in wooden frames, and the surface was smoothed for writing and allowed to dry until damp. After being inscribed, the clay dried in the sun, or for a harder finish was baked in a kiln, much like pottery. For storage, tablets could be stacked on edge, side by side, the contents described by a title written on the edge that faced out and was readily seen. Some ancient libraries used baskets to hold tablets, while a library at Babylon stored them in earthenware jars.

When it came to the archives and libraries of ancient cities, conquest by invaders usually resulted in the victors carrying off the tablets or burning down the buildings that housed the libraries. Since clay tablets do not burn, they endured when left undisturbed in the arid climate of Southwest Asia. Over time, the encroachment of the desert buried many an abandoned tablet-library under drifting sand, to be hidden for thousands of years.

Archaeological expeditions have excavated scores of ancient libraries, notably at Ebla, Nineveh, Nimrud, and Pergamum. The daily life of legendary civilizations has been revealed by the discovery of the clay tablets. The oldest known library was found in the lost ruins of Ebla, in northern Syria. A major commercial center by 2500 BCE, Ebla was destroyed twice. After the second time, around 1650 BCE, it never recovered and wind covered the ruins — and their libraries — with the desert's sand. Ebla was no more than a legend until the 1970s, when it was unearthed by archaeologists who eventually recovered 20,000 clay tablets with cuneiform writing.

Typical of ancient libraries, Ebla's tablets had been arranged on shelves built into the walls. When Ebla's library shelves were burned by the invading army, or decayed over time, they collapsed under the tablets' weight. According to one researcher, the tablets "settled on top of one another, in horizontal heaps, like cards in a file." They were discovered in exactly that way.

Many Ebla tablets were inscribed with a previously unknown dialect termed Northwest Semitic, or "Old Canaanite" (also named "Eblaite"). Other tablets were in Sumerian, a language much studied and well understood by archaeologists. Among the tablets were vocabularies that intermixed words from the two languages, which allowed for the translation of Eblaite.

Ebla's tablets documented the economic and cultural life of the city's 250,000 inhabitants, who had commercial relations with the peoples of eighty other lands. One library storeroom contained lists of food and drink, apparently keeping the accounts of official messengers and state functionaries. Other tablets dealt with the textile trade, Ebla's prime business, while many were concerned with taxes. Some tablets contained legends, hymns, magical incantations, and scientific records and observations — including writings on zoology and mineralogy. Ebla's tablets also held the first known references to the city of Jerusalem.

* * *

In the seventh century BCE, Assyrian king Assurbanipal established one of the greatest ancient libraries at Nineveh, on the Tigris River. Assurbanipal's royal library of more than 30,000 clay tablets, written in several languages, often were organized according to shape: four-sided tablets were for financial transactions, while round tablets recorded agricultural information. (In this era, some written documents were also on wood and others on wax tablets.)

Tablets were separated according to their contents and placed in different rooms: government, history, law, astronomy, geography, and so on. The contents were identified by colored marks or brief written descriptions, and sometimes by the "incipit," or the first few words that began the text.

The Nineveh library was Assurbanipal's passion, and he sent out scribes to the distant corners of his kingdom to visit other libraries and record their contents. These were among the first library catalogs. The king also organized the copying of original literary works, for he sought to study the "artistic script of the Sumerians" and the "obscure script of the Akkadians." In so doing, Assurbanipal hoped to obtain "the hidden treasures of the scribe's knowledge." Assurbanipal's library also held the Gilgamesh Epic. In the coming ages, libraries would be increasingly revered as sources of knowledge and wisdom — spiritual, magical, and earthly — and whoever controlled books and libraries possessed a unique power.

Assurbanipal died in 627 BCE, and the Assyrian empire weakened. Nineveh was attacked and destroyed in 612 BCE, its people massacred or driven away, the city razed to the ground, and a great fire ravaged the library.

* * *

By 3000 BCE Egyptians had developed hieroglyphics, which combines pictographs with symbols (glyphs) that represent syllables when spoken aloud. Hieroglyphics means "sacred engraving," the term given to this form of writing by Greeks, who discovered examples of it in Egyptian temples and funeral sites. There are some six thousand known hieroglyphs from Egypt, where they were in use until the fourth century.

In Egypt, papyrus rolls were used for writing on rather than clay tablets. Papyrus — from which the term "paper" derives — is a tall, reedy plant that grows in abundance in the delta of the Nile River. To produce a writing surface, papyrus stalks were opened, exposing the interior pith, which was then pounded flat into a sheet. The sheet held together because of the reed's stringy consistency, and when two sheets were overlaid, crisscrossing, the resulting page could be made durable and smooth. Papyrus sheets were glued in sequence, making a scroll which received writing only on one side.

Library papyrus rolls were stored in wooden boxes and chests, piled on shelves, and also kept in wooden cases made in the form of statues. In some civilizations, they were kept in large clay jars. Scrolls were organized and grouped according to subject or author, and identified by labels that specified their contents. These labels, often made of clay, like thin pieces of pottery, were attached by a string to the end of the scroll. Labels made it possible to identify the contents without having to take down and unroll the scroll.

Papyrus was resilient enough to be reused when the writing was wiped off. Unlike clay tablets, it was lightweight, and since papyrus grew abundantly in the region, it was also inexpensive. Papyrus grew almost exclusively in Egypt; this meant that Egyptians controlled its distribution, which influenced the development of books and writing in the civilized world.

The English term "library" derives from liber, Latin for "book." The Greek term for a papyrus roll is biblion, and a container for storing rolls is called a bibliotheke. In some languages, the word for library is a variant of bibliotheke, a place where books are kept.

Unfortunately, papyrus was susceptible to deterioration, so few ancient scrolls survive. Conversely, archaeologists have discovered more than 400,000 clay tablets, buried in Fertile Crescent cities abandoned long ago and surrendered to the sands.

Clay tablets and papyrus scrolls kept in temples were maintained and organized by priests and their scribes (professional writers and copyists). The scribe worked in his "scriptorium," or writing chamber. One task was to prepare funerary scrolls for the wealthy by copying the texts of original books, the most revered of which was The Book of the Dead, a sacred guide to the afterlife. A copy of this text was an essential component of the deceased's burial wares and treasures. The funerary papyrus scroll was buried in a tomb, often in a mummy's sarcophagus, and expected to endure longer than a carved stone, or stele, which stood aboveground, exposed to the wind and weather.

The scroll was engraved with symbols, and often with writing. Scribes who wrote biographical literature were considered to have a kind of mystical ability to transcend time and death because their writing would last beyond the lifetime of the subject — king, noble, or priest. The scribe's name was usually included on the scroll, occasionally accompanied by his family heritage, which could be quite lengthy if the scribe were important enough in his own right.

The best scribes were valued by nobles and governments, and it was a status symbol to have their signatures on one's family documents. The scribe was highly regarded for superior, almost magical, reading and writing skills. His written words were a link to the ancestors, to the future, even to the gods themselves. As an ancient Egyptian poem put it, "The wise scribes of the time[,] their names endure forever," even though they built no pyramids or "stelae of stone."

They chose not to leave children to be their heirs and perpetuate their names:
they appointed as their heirs the books they wrote and the precepts therein....

Man vanishes, his body is buried in the ground,
all his contemporaries depart this earth,
but the written word puts the memory of him in the mouth of any person who passes it on to the mouth of another.

A book is better than a house or the tombs in the West.
It is more beautiful than a castle or a stele in a temple.

The profession of scribe was a difficult one, its demands all-consuming, as exemplified by what an Egyptian instructor told his student: "I shall make thee love writing more than thine own mother."

* * *

Legend has it that when the preeminence of Egypt's Alexandria library was challenged by a new library at Pergamum in Asia Minor, the Egyptians refused to export papyrus to their competitors. As a result, Pergamum developed a writing material of its own, made from the skin of calves, sheep, and goats, called parchment (it is pergamenum in Latin and pergament in Germanic languages, harking back to its origins in Pergamum).

Parchment's smooth surface took ink and paint better than papyrus, facilitating beautiful designs and calligraphy on the book page, and it was also more durable. The finest quality parchment is vellum, generally made from calfskin. By the fifth century in Europe, parchment, in its various forms, had replaced papyrus as the leading writing material.

In ancient Greece, library and archival collections flourished by 600 BCE, and within the next three centuries the culture of the written word rose to a pinnacle there. By the closing centuries BCE, writing and books were not only essential to human progress, but cultures also won prestige according to the size and worth of their libraries. Private book collections in homes and temples, and handsome structures to contain them, were being built by the leading citizens of Greece.

The Greeks were the first to establish libraries for the public, not just for the ruling elite. By 500 BCE, Athens and Sámos were developing public libraries; however, the majority of people could not read, so even these early public libraries served just a small part of the population.


Excerpted from "The Library"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Stuart A. P. Murray.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Page,
"For the Dedication of the New City Library, Boston",

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The Library: An Illustrated History 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
FeatheredQuillBookReviews More than 1 year ago
This may be the most beautiful book-and the saddest-that a bibliophile will ever read. Most beautiful because it's illustrated on nearly every page with paintings, drawings, and photographs of libraries around the world. Saddest because so many of those libraries have, over the centuries, been sacked, bombed, or burned. The Library opens with an account of the discovery, in 1853, of the world's first library. As gangs of diggers worked in the ruins of Nineveh, they found inscribed terracotta tablets in the palace of Assurbanipal (625-587 BCE), the last ruler of Assyria. The next twelve chapters take us into libraries all around the world and in nearly all cultures and nations, from the ancient world to medieval and modern Europe and Asia, from Timbuktu to the New World. (The only nations not mentioned are those in sub-Saharan Africa and South America outside Brazil.) We read about the horrific effects of wars and crusades on libraries and books and about the library movement of the 19th century (mainly), when public libraries were established all over the world. Although the author describes ancient and vanished libraries in the Fertile Crescent, Alexandria, and Aksun (Ethiopia), he also discusses the digitizing of books in the 21st century. (Strangely, this book needs better editing or proofreading, as there are occasional typos.) The book concludes with page-long descriptions, most of them with pictures, of "the libraries of the world"-fifty institutions, including public libraries in the U.S., Europe, and Asia; specialized libraries (the Folger Shakespeare, the Huntington, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam), national libraries (Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan), and the oldest standing library (St. Gall in Switzerland, built in 719, rebuilt in 973). We also learn that El Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial (1563, near Madrid) was the first library to put the shelves against the walls instead of perpendicular to them and that King Philip II kept reshelving the books with their spines in to protect them from the sun. The Sorbonne in Paris was the first library to alphabetize books by title. And there's a drawing of a nifty medieval contraption called a "book wheel." This revolving bookstand let a reader study a dozen books, which were chained to the perimeter of the wheel (which seems to be as tall as a man), at the same time by turning the wheel. As he takes us along his multi-century, multi-national tour of the world of books, the author also repeats what wise men have written about books. Sir Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted; others swallowed; and some few to be chewed and digested." Danish physician A. Bartholini: "Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, natural science at a stand, philosophy lame, letters dumb, and all things involved in darkness" (pg. 81). What else is there to say? Quill says: The Library should be in the hands of every elected official (including school board members) and voter who is even thinking about defunding or closing a library or shortening its hours. Keep our libraries open! We need them!
WaxPoetic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It took me twice through the photo credits of this volume before I realized what it is: it is the tangible form of information about libraries that is available on the internet. I do not mean to suggest that it is in any way trite or meaningless, rather that it is an example of a 21st century way of writing a book. In other words: this is library after the Internet. At least, according to one person.The passages quoted and the illustrations chosen are very well suited to their purposes. This is a book that I may not read word for word again, not because of a lack of facts, rather because, not unlike much popular specialist writing ¿ it¿s not as in-depth as I would like. The number of websites Murray lists in his Further Reading suggestions do very little more than convince me that in print in a narrow column is a terrible place for a URL ¿ they are cluttered and not at all easy to parse on three or four lines. The last almost 70 pages of the book are dedicated to a geographically random list of Libraries of the World. It is a wonderful list that could be the basis for an extremely expensive and fulfilling year traveling the globe. There is just enough information to inspire more investigation without being tiresome.I recommend this for the Sunday afternoon library history reader. It reads fairly quickly, cites wonderful works and is very accessible.
e1da on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really only read this because one of my favorite professors wrote the intro. It was too broad an overview for my tastes and questionably organized with little markers throughout the chapters indicating a change in idea rather than transition sentences. It also had no conclusion, ending with descriptions of a handful of noteworthy libraries. It was a quick read though and enjoyable enough.