Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Praise of Libraries and Librarians- ancient and modern

We are lucky in the DC area to have great museums and libraries. I was reminded of this yesterday when attending a talk by Fred Edwords on “Human Origins: When Religion Makes Science Museums Nervous”. Fred covered some the issues around the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian (more at The talk was in a local library. Museums and libraries are 2 of my favorite secular institutions. I just love libraries. From the time I could walk to one, I’ve had my library card and a rapid heart beat as I wander the maze-rows of books promising voyages into literary worlds. It’s one of those special secular and humanizing institutions.

My oceanic thoughts are well captured by Linda Sue Park in her poem “Why I Love Libraries”

I lose myself within the book-walled maze,
with no end to the promises in sight,
through passages to many worlds and ways.
The aisles meander pleasantly. A craze
of unread pages beckons, tempts, invites;
I lose myself. Within the book-walled maze

a googolplex of lexical arrays
for exploration flanks me left and right.
True passages to many; worlds and ways

that lead to corners sharp with turns of phrase,
and tales both commonplace and recondite
to lose myself within. The book-walled maze

reveals its pleasures slowly, but repays
the debt of time in thousandfold delight—
through passages to many worlds, in ways

mapped out by words. A sudden blink of light:
It's checkout time—they’re closing for the night.
I'd lost myself within the b
ook-walled maze,
through passages to many worlds and ways.

Here in the DC area we are especially lucky to have the Library of Congress (LoC) the nearest thing to a Googolplex of delights. This library always reminds me of that more distant and seemingly mythical public library that existed in Alexandria. If there is a prototype for a library this is it for me. The “Great Library” of Alexandria, founded about 300 BCE from a suggestion by Demetrius to set up a universal library to hold copies of all the books in the world (see and more details). It was research facility and had a governance use like the LoC since leaders like Ptolemy and his successors wanted to understand the people under their rule. Once underway the librarians expressed a goal was of collecting a half-million scrolls which the succeeding Ptolemies persued. At its height, the library apparently held nearly 750,000 scrolls. Ptolemy I, for example, composed a letter to all the sovereigns and governors he knew, imploring them "not to hesitate to send him" works by authors of every kind. Many of us have heard the story of how the Ptolemies copied books while boats were in dock. The extreme version is that “confiscated” any book not already in the library from passengers arriving in Alexandria. There is one story tells how Ptolemy III (~240 BCE) “borrowed” original manuscripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, using silver as collateral. He kept the originals and sent the copies back. But he did let the authorities keep the money. Oh to have at least the copies of some of those works were lost. We know that it housed Latin, Buddhist, Persian, Hebrew, and Egyptian works that were translated into Greek.

Recently some images of the library was brought to life for me by a film Agora ( One of the film’s attractions was that it has rich recreations of what the library might have looked and felt like as a combination library and research center. But as a film it is also about the life of philosopher and perhaps last Alexandrian librarian Hypatia. The film is set in set in Alexandria, Egypt around 391 CE and is has a story line which combines women’s rights, science and religion. The film is a bit of morality tale about science and progressive stances being challenges by passionate,
religious fundamentalist – in this case early Christians and Jews who were not only in conflict with each other but with pagan and secular scholars who inhabit the Library at Alexandria in the movie. According to Wikipdia there was a real Hypatia who was a Neoplatonist philosopher, trained in the mathematical tradition of the Academy of Athens represented and a follower the school of the 3rd century thinker Plotinus, who discouraged empirical enquiry and stressed logical and mathematical studies. The contemporary Christian historiographer Socrates Scholasticus described her in his Ecclesical History'

“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. “
Here end is described this way in a Smithsonian piece:

“One day on the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 415 or 416, a mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector accosted a woman’s carriage and dragged her from it and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it. Who was this woman and what was her crime? Hypatia was one of the last great thinkers of ancient Alexandria and one of the first women to study and teach mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. Though she is remembered more for her violent death, her dramatic life is a fascinating lens through which we may view the plight of science in an era of religious and sectarian conflict.

Read more:

In the movie Hypatia is a bit more of a modern, empirical scientist and performs Galilean experiment to test concepts of a moving earth. Although Hypatia's death has been interpreted by some, as it is in the movie, as example of conflict between religion and scientific inquiry, contemporary historians of science have a different view. She essentially got caught up in a political struggle. In the words of David Lindberg, "her death had everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science".
A final note. Some of the wonder of this universal library is now captured by the Bibliotheca Alexandrin (
This library is both a commemoration of the Library of Alexandria whose final lost is depicted in Agora and an attempt to rekindle something of the brilliance that this earlier center of study and erudition represented.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post on libraries. I'm also a library lover and am lucky to live in NYC which has a top research library. I've also been fascinated with Hypatia for decades. I've written about her extensively on my website. If you haven't run across them yet, there are a couple good biographies: Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr by Michael A. B. Deakin (Prometheus Books, 2007). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film Agora at my blog - not a movie review, but a "reel vs. real" discussion.