Saturday, December 03, 2011

Callimachus - Father of Bibliography and Organizer of Library Knowledge

By Gary Berg-Cross

The other day while listening to a talk about finding things on the Web I learned about Callimachus/ Kallimachus. He was born in Cyrene , Africa (c. 305-240 BC) which today is part of Libya. He was a noted poet and hymn maker, critic & elite scholar who taught in Eleusina near Athens. He was one of those polymaths it is fascinating to read about at the beginnings of modern culture. He was known then for elite, erudite wit claiming to "abhor all common things." Callimachus is apparently well known for his short poems and epigrams rejecting the larger and heavy epics that were modeled after Homer’s work - Big book, big evil". Instead Callimachus urged poets to "drive their wagons on untrodden fields," and off the rutted paths of Homer. His resulting poetry was elegiac, brief, and carefully formed and worded perhaps like Emily Dickinson.

This was all new to me but I ran into a reference to him as the Father of Bibliography. This is based on his cataloging work as the scholar (some say Chief Librarian) at the Great Secular Library in Alexandria. As discussed in Wikipedia Callimachus' most famous prose work is the Pinakes (Tablets or Lists for short, but the full title is List of those who distinguished themselves in all branches of learning, and their writings). It was not simple and comprised 120 books. This is a bibliographical survey of authors of the 500,000 or so works held in the Library of Alexandria at that time. Most notably the Pinakes is apparently one of the first known card catalog attempts. Obviously a great library needs a meta-document to list, identify, and categorize holdings. Facing the task of classifying the scrolls, Callimachus sighed: "Mega biblion, mega kakon" (many writings equals many worries). So the question was how to organize a scholar’s fondest fantasy in the place where all human knowledge, all the books of the world, were being collected? Zenodotus, the 1st Library had inventoried the Library’s holdings and tried organized them into three major categories. The first category included history books, edited and standardized literary works, and new works of Ptolemaic literature. This was just not detailed enough. Callimachus' applied his genius around 250 BCE to developing a good catalog and he seemed to invent it all by himself without having workable models to base it on. Certainly the Alexandrian holdings were different in depth and scope but also reflected the new work of the Greeks. Aristotle had developed a scheme to systematize and organize knowledge as part of his development of ontology. But these taxonomic schemes were somewhat arbitrary.

More importantly when you looked at the knowledge being captured in the Great Library holding they didn’t seem to work. Callimachus’ particular quandary was that he could not categorize his own works using Aristotle’s hierarchy for knowledge! That's a motivator.

In response Callimachus' came up with his own system that divided works into 6 genres and 5 sections of prose. These were rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science and miscellanies. Authors within each were listed alphabetically so there was a 2nd organization scheme, which now seems obvious but was new. But he went further by also annotated his catalog in ways that we now call “metadata”. Callimachus liked things brief and the info on a modern card catalog maybe is too brief. Callimachus added short biographical notes on authors, which prefaced that author’s entry within his catalog. We have only tanatalizing scraps of his notes remaining (as shown on the side picture), but we know his system was useful and used.

“This helped avoid confusion in the works of authors with similar or identical names, but separating works of the original author and works of namesakes was often extremely difficult. In addition, Callimachus noted the first words of the work, and the total number of lines in the document. Later librarians were to make marginal notations in the pinakes, which provided even more information on the nature of the cataloged document.” From The Great Library of Alexandria?

By consulting the Pinakes catalog, a library patron could find out if the library contained a work by a particular author, how it was categorized, and where it might be found. It’s still an ininfluence on the way we organize library material since it affected later organizational approaches by Jefferson and Dewey. And there remains the parallel efforts to organize large collection of books using some idea of how knowledge is organized. The challenge these days is to organize knowledge on the Web where there are no natural librarians. Each posting person has an opportunity to tag information in some way but these can be arbitrary. It's one reason that the deluge of mostly unstructured digital data, documents, e-mail, and instant messages raises serious organizational issues.

We could use a combination of Callimachus and Aristotle for updated ideas to organize human knowledge which grows dramatically each day.

For more on the dream of the Great Library see The Ancient Library of Alexandria.

A Model for Classical Scholarship in the Age of Million Book Libraries and Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography (Wisconsin Studies in Classics)

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