I recently returned home from a three-week vacation in Greece. What a wonderful place! My friends and I spent time on the islands of Rhodes, Samos, Mykonos, and Santorini. We also travelled to Kusadasi, Turkey, and visited the ancient site of Ephesus. We toured the Peloponnese and spent time in Athens. It was the trip of a lifetime!
While there, I had an opportunity to visit the ruins of two ancient libraries. The first was the Library of Census in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey. Ephesus was an ancient Greek city, built in the 10th century BC. Situated at the end of a road made of marble, the ruins of the ancient city’s library consist of a two-storey facade and one interior room. Construction began in AD 110 and was completed 25 years later. Named in honour of the Roman governor of Asia Minor at the time (in fact, his tomb is underneath the library), in its heyday the collection contained more than 12,000 scrolls in the niches on its walls. There was an additional wall around the building to protect the scrolls from moisture. It was a functioning library until AD 400, when it was destroyed by fire. Here’s a picture of me in front of the library. It certainly isn’t my glamour pic, but this is me when I travel!
(Library of Census, Turkey)
I also visited Hadrian’s Library in Athens, built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was constructed between AD 132 and 134 and was the largest library in the city. It housed important literary works, as well as legal and administrative documents. It also housed the official state archives. It was described by a Greek traveller and geographer of the time as a “building with 100 columns of Phrygian marble, with halls with painted ceilings, alabaster walls, and niches with statues in which books were kept.” I can only imagine how beautiful it was!
Documents, in the form of papyrus scrolls, were kept in wooden cupboards set in niches in the walls. The library also contained a garden and works of art, as well as lecture halls. It hosted various schools of philosophy and was a place where people gathered to hear lectures and discuss intellectual matters. It was a magnificent building, built to impress the people of Athens, a task it surely accomplished.
(Hadrian's Library, Athens)
I must admit that I was awestruck when I visited the remains of these amazing libraries. Even though I’ve known that libraries have been around since ancient times, seeing the actual buildings and walking the same steps that people walked many hundreds of years earlier made it all feel much more real to me. It struck me that libraries and librarians/information professionals have been around in one capacity or another for more than two thousand years!
I couldn’t help but wonder what a typical day was like for the “custodian of the scrolls” in these libraries. Would their work-day resemble mine in any way? I would imagine that the primary mission of information professionals from ancient times is much the same as ours—and that is to provide people with the information they need.
A custodian of the scrolls in ancient times wouldn’t even be able to dream about what libraries have become and how information is made available to people in our modern world.
I wonder what people 2000 years from now will think when they look at our modern-day libraries and collections. Will they think we made the right decisions in relation to preserving our collections? Will they be amazed at what we had and wish they had it too? Food for thought.
Ann Marie Melvie
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