vol. 25 no. 2, June, 2020

Book Reviews

Robson, E. Ancient knowledge networks: a social geography of cuneiform scholarship in first-millennium Assyria and Babylonia. London: UCL Press, 2019. 338 p. ISBN 978-1-78735-596-5 (Hardback) £45.00 (PDF version free - ISBN: 978-1-78735-594-1)

Where, when or by whom is knowledge generated? How is the relevant information replicated and spread? Where and why is it used? Libraries and librarians play a not insignificant role in the transmission of information and the stimulation of ideas in every discipline but, as Lor ( 2019) has recently argued , researchers and others working in this field could usefully pay more attention to the context in which developments in knowledge have been initiated or dispersed if some aspects of the globalisation of information are to be better understood and future opportunities for library development are to be recognised.

In this book, Eleanor Robson, Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College London, examines some previously unexplored aspects of the flow of information between the early Akkadian and Babylonian civilisations, which she describes as part of a broader ‘cuneiform culture’. Although the collections of clay tablets from the so-called Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh in northern Iraq are perhaps the best known, similar collections have been found in archaeological digs throughout the surrounding region. The ancient Middle East was populated by groups who were differentiated in many ways but adopted cuneiform as their common form of writing because it could be used to write in their different languages. Its use persisted on clay tablets and papyrus until the first century CE. The ancient knowledge networks to which the title of the book refers focus on some major themes in the cuneiform texts discovered in excavations of the Mesopotamian cities of the first and second millennia BCE.

The flow of information within and between the cities of Babylonia and Assyria is examined from the perspective of the interaction between the kings, scholars and the principal god of scholarship in their religion. The detailed textual analyses that form a large part of this book may not be particularly meaningful to anyone other than other scholars of the early Mesopotamian civilisations. Nonetheless, this study is a useful example of what is known as cross-over scholarship, a relatively rare approach to library research (see, e.g., Du Toit, 2002), examining a topic from the perspective of more than one discipline. Studies of the use of published literature have revealed how scholars in general make little use of relevant sources of information that are not published in the specialist literature of their own field. There are probably even fewer attempts to adopt or adapt research techniques from another discipline. In these respects, research in librarianship and information studies has been as insular as it has been in other disciplines, possibly more so.

Professor Robson first summarises the excavations in Iraq from their beginning in the 1840s to date, the important collections of cuneiform that have been found, and the previous foci of the scholarly interests in them. She explains that the history and geography of cuneiform intellectual culture has not previously been sufficiently explored because of the lack of information about the motivations, interests and abilities of the scholar-scribes, partly resulting from the haphazard nature of early excavations (and more recent illicit ones) when contrasted with rigorous modern techniques. The evidence provided by recent developments in archaeological methodologies has encouraged modern scholars to begin to examine the contexts in which the scribes worked. She uses this evidence to examine the work of the scribes to illustrate the movement of ideas and practices, techniques and knowledge through time, across distances and between communities, using the written and architectural remains of these two societies to determine not only who did what, but also when and where, and why they were there, providing what she acknowledges is a first and only a preliminary analysis.

The dating of texts had previously made clear that Ashurbanipal’s library was not the creation of a single monarch but the result of collecting over several centuries by his predecessors, and previous studies had indicated that it was an atypical example of the textual collections that we now know of as libraries and archives. Professor Robson explains that archaeological finds of tablets in that Library, in a location where the local language differed from that used on the tablets as well as notations on other tablets indicated that their scribes anticipated the possibility of them being transported to other cities. They also point to an acceptance that information and knowledge were transferable as well as revealing patterns of borrowing and lending. The historical context provided by archaeological evidence and dated evidence from statuary and other inscriptions and from the style of construction of buildings can be adduced to demonstrate when tablets and their implicit knowledge were relocated and changes in practice took place. Changes over time in the content of the cuneiform texts can point to changes in the priorities of the king and court. Analysis of colophons (scribes’ signatures) and writing styles can reflect how political upheavals in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE resulted in a greater sense of local autonomy emerging in cities in the empire. Over the next two or three centuries, the evidence implicit in the tablets also illustrates how these political changes eroded the support that had sustained the scholarly scribal communities and their networks for exchanging information. At a personal level, the evidence also indicates that individuals needed to gain social acceptance to become part of the influential community of scholar-scribes, and that their relationships with superiors were inherently fragile. There are surely parallels in the quasi-political leadership role of contemporary library managers.

In examining the relevance to studies of the available cuneiform texts of some of the theories of book production and knowledge dissemination that have emerged from book historians and the geographers of science, she provides an interesting summary and critique of the potential application of some of the main existing approaches. There are some techniques used in this book that demonstrate some similarity to approaches to bibliometrics. However, no mention is made of knowledge management techniques which have become fashionable amongst academics in the fields of information studies and business management. Why? Perhaps because they have not yet been underpinned by rigorous and widely recognised theories?

This book itself is an object of interest to anyone concerned with academic publishing or collection development. The approach embodied by UCL Press combines the rigour of scholarly publishing with the capability of modern print-on-demand and internet document delivery systems. It requires a hefty financial contribution on the part of an author or the sponsor of their research, but offers a product in a variety of formats at prices that are affordable in relation to its likely use. The book should therefore enjoy a wider readership than it might otherwise have done. Librarians are implicitly interested in the international flow of information, but so too should be the scholars, scientists or businessmen for whom they provide information support. Members of all those occupations have contributed to and benefitted from the international flow of information. The application to a broader range of research of insights from reading this book could facilitate the future flow of knowledge between them.


Professor Ian Johnson
May 2020

How to cite this review

Johnson, I. (2020). Review of: Robson, E. Ancient knowledge networks: a social geography of cuneiform scholarship in first-millennium Assyria and Babylonia. London: UCL Press, 2019. Information Research, 25(2), review no. R686. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs686.html

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.