Ryholt, Kim and Barjamovic, Gojko (Eds.). Libraries before Alexandria: ancient Near Eastern traditions. Oxford University Press, 2019. xviii, 491. ISBN 978-0-19-965535-9. £100.00.
I think that this is one of the most fascinating books that I have read lately. Part of this fascination depends on the fact that in my scholarly and professional life I rarely came into touch with the studies of ancient cultures more than was presented in library history textbooks or popular history. Of course, I knew of the library of Alexandria having read some scholarly books about it and being involved in training librarians in the modern library of Alexandria. It was a fascinating period in my professional life. Of course, I knew of the Assurbanipal library and cuneiform writings, as my first library history professor was repeatedly telling his students that the complexity of this library witnesses a long and interesting library and literacy tradition. But I have never before met such a collection of studies presenting Egyptian and Mesopotamian library studies so coherently and fully.
The book spans almost 3000 years of history related to literary development, building collections of documents and libraries. The first chapter provides a wide panorama of what is covered in the book. Then each chapter page by page reveals the very first evidence of libraries in 2600-2300 BCE in Western Asia and Egypt; explores text collections in Old Babylon and Hittite state (1900-1080 BCE); presents libraries in Syria and Levant in Late Bronze age and in Ancient Egypt, and arrivves to the period of 800 BCE - 250 CE in Assyria and Egypt of Greco-Roman period. The authors of the chapters present the results of their studies pulling together archeological evidens, text analysis, comparative linguistics, paleographics and other disicplines, methods, and historical evidence. They also draw on earlier studies and reference contemporary work. The scholarship is of the very highest quality, but that can only be expected looking at the list of contributors and their titles. What is common to all of them is commitment to their studies and love of their subject matters. I simply have to list the people who helped the book along together with the main editors: Gojko Bajramovic, Kim Ryholt, Kamran Vincent Zand, Paul Delnero, Eleanor Robson and Kathryn Stevens, R.B. Parkinson, Fredrik Hagen and Paola Dardano.
The chapters are of different size and complexity, some are easier to read and follow, the others require deeper concentration. To some extent this is dictated by the amount of material available and the level of its accessibility and analysis. I was not really surprised to learn how little evidence of Egyption libraries has survived in comparison with those in Western Asia as papyrus is perishable in comparison with clay tablets. But it never has occurred to me how fragile is the evidence of archeological excavations and findings. Some of it has never been produced due to lack of knowledge and illegal nature of excavations, but so much of it has perished during tribulations of the 20th century.
There are interesting parallels with the present situation of libraries. The scholars try to distinguish between archives of documents and libraries of literary texts, investigate the remaining evidence of collection management, storage and migration. In many cases it seems that libraries used to have fuzzy boundaries between institutional and personal, temples and schools of scribes, professional and home environment. The scholars characterize some of the ancient libraries as mobile and distributed, talk about migration of texts from old medium to the new one by copying. One can suspect that the terminology used in the chapters is coming from the modern practices of library and information work, but the processes and structures themselves prove the connectiion with modernity.
This discussion of ancient library concept, boundaries and practices connects to our present times of digital and hybrid libraries, their differences and similarities with digital museums and archives, virtual and physical spaces, functions of different types of libraries in relation to other institutions. I do not appreciate drawing such parallels just for the sake of them, however, it seems very relevant to the present state of conceptualisation of this ancient institution - library and its modern state. It suggests new perspectives to the modern library thought based on the ancient library cases.
The book also inevitably raises other parralels. The troubled history of the Near East has created so much contemporary destruction. History has repeated itself in Ancient Greece and Rome, and in medieval Europe, and in modern times all over the place. The media are changing, but it seems that people are not - they persist in their destructive ways. Most of archeological sites of the Near East are in troubled areas and further excavations and investigations are stopped. There is still so much to uncover and study, but the danger of more destruction is more than real.
Therefore, it is amazing to see the books like this one being published: good scholarship and professional editing, beautiful design with high quality drawings and illustrations, detailed indexes and high quality references. Surprising that from such a fragmented and scarce evidence reaching us against all odds, it is possible to extract so much knowledge of ancient ways of working with text, preserving them, education of scribes in schools and through apprenticeship. I hope that many others will enjoy this book and that it will serve as a model for similar publications.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2020). Review of: Ryholt, Kim and Barjamovic, Gojko (eds.) Libraries before Alexandria: Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Oxford University Press, 2019.Information Research, 25(3), review no. R697. http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs697.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.