March 28, 2019 by libroshombre
Reading in the newspaper about Dubai having “the largest artificial tree in the world” harkened me back to the first public library I worked at in Odessa, Texas, a town also known as “Slowdeatha” and “Odesolate.” The landscape is parched, sun-blasted, and treeless, but it does contain an abundance of jackrabbits, tall, long-eared hares that can run 40 mph and leap in 10-foot bounds. Consequently, the public library there maintains the world’s largest fiberglass jackrabbit. My first library as director in Seguin, Texas, was home to the world’s largest fiberglass pecan.
Enormous fake jackrabbits and pecans offer some sort of reflected glory but don’t compare with the splendors found inside the average American public library. Some are great libraries and other just scrape by, but even the meanest offers some of the best human imaginations have produced, thanks to the 5,000 year-long tradition of librarians. Back in ancient Mesopotamia, the oldest libraries weren’t large by modern standards, but they were composed of clay tablets that usually didn’t possess titles or include their authors. The library found in the 4,500-year-old ruins of Elba in today’s Syria sported about 2,000 tablets, but each tablet was just a single page of a larger work. The 40,000 tablets found in Nippur, a 4,000-year-old city in Iraq, amounted to 43 complete books. However, Nippur’s librarian-scribes added something; they compiled a list of their books making their library easier to use. 700 years later the Hittite librarians in Hattusas, near Ankara, Turkey one-upped the Nippur crew.
As Lionel Casson wrote in “Libraries of the Ancient World,” on their tablets the Hittites “added after the end of the text on the back surface, several lines of writing that identify the work more or less the way a title page does today, the colophon, as it is called; the term is derived from the Greek word kolophon, ‘finishing touch’.” The colophons began with the number of the tablets they were on since “tablets, unlike pages, could not be bound; the best that could be done was to keep them together, either in stacks on top of each other or on edge alongside each other, both of which arrangements left ample opportunity for individual tablets to get misplaced.”
Those early librarians’ names have been lost to time, but the first known librarian was either Demetrius of Phaleron or Zenodotus of Ephesus. The philosopher-politician Demetrius ruled Athens as the Macedonian’s puppet around 300 BCE, but he favored the wealthy elite so much that he was forced to flee his office under a death warrant. He found sanctuary in Alexandria, where Ptolemy I, founder of the mighty Alexandrian Library, hired him to devise a scheme for organizing his library.
However, Ptolemy II hired Zenodotus, the first to be called superintendent, or head librarian, and he actually organized the enormous influx of papyrus scrolls pouring into the Alexandrian Library, arranging the books in separate rooms according to their subjects and tagging them with colophons. The library was the first to gather all available Greek writings, and its city was well-situated for that, since Alexandria was both the world’s major exporter of papyrus, the main writing medium of the age, and the Mediterranean’s main commercial crossroads.
Even the Alexandrian Library’s resources pale next to our local public libraries, with their 300,000-plus works, powerful databases, and services like “Book-A-Librarian,” that expands the usual on-call assistance by library staff to allow you to reserve an hour with a professional librarian for in-depth research. And the library offers a plethora of on-line tutorials on all sorts of techie subjects, from basic Internet searching and Microsoft Office products, to Instagram and Snapchat, to Value Line investment tools and legal forms.
Our libraries also contain fabulous collections of fine Alaskan artwork, thanks to people like Claire Fejes and Keith Gianni. Claire organized a committee to acquire the library’s Rockwell Kent collection back when Noel Wien Library was built in 1977, and a quarter-century later Dr. Gianni donated his amazing collection of historic and Native Alaskan art so it would be enjoyed by the thousand people who visit our libraries daily. They arrive all with expectations of fresh ideas. And as John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”