Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries

In this scene [in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra], the ancient library becomes a sign of infinitely more than a collection, however large, of papyrus rolls. The destruction of the library of Alexandria — whoever was really responsible — becomes over-determined: it must vanish because the tensions it crystallized have never yet been resolved. It is evidence that time can never be reversed because the dead are divided by silence from the living, even as it transcends time in representing a form of dialogue between them. It takes on a quasi-metaphysical status. Just as the Sumerarians called libraries “the ordainers of the universe,” the Romans could even envisage the goddesses who determine human destiny, the Parcae or Fates, as librarians: in the fifth century A.D. the late pagan writer Martianus Capella described the Pacae as “librarians of the gods and the guardians of their archive, ” utpote librariae Superum archivumque custodes.”

The library as an idea does indeed unify opposites: like rhetoric, it has an immanent ethics, no immanent qualities of virtue or vice, but it is a tool that can both liberate and oppress. Bernard Shaw had of course not read Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), in which book collections or archives of any kind were subjected to their first major critique as institutions of power, and further reinforcing the exercise of that power. Shaw did not know that by the last twentieth century there would emerge a powerful feminist and postcolonial suspicion of the universal, monolithic repository of knowledge. he did not know that people would claim the impossibility in any ideologically conflicted world, let alone a truly democratic one, of a single institution accommodating the inevitably antithetical subjectivities of its inhabitants.  Nor had George Eliot read Foucault when in Middlemarch (1874) she made the library of the classic pendant Edward Casaubon stand for everything that prevented the flowering of real intellectual enquiry, let alone love, in the education-starved Dorothea’s soul.

When he claimed that Alexandria was the cultural capital of the world by founding its library in the early third century B.C. Ptolemy I Soter had certainly not read Foucault any more than Eliot or Shaw. Ancient creators of libraries were always either very powerful (like Ptolemy or Trajan) or very rich (like Pliny): for equally obvious reasons, they always presented the creation of a library, whether public or private, as a self-evidently good thing.

Edith Hall, Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries, The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, Princeton University Press, 2015, p.17.