The Ancient Library of Alexandria: A Pathfinder

Historical Context

Alexandrian History Library History

Alexandrian History

The history of the Alexandrian Library is closely linked with the history of the city of Alexandria itself. The Library was begun shortly after the founding of the city by Alexander the Great. The Library's demise is speculated to have occurred at approximately the same time as Alexandria lost its splendor. Thus, a history of the city provides a helpful and even necessary context in which to gain a full appreciation of the Library.

Fraser, P.M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
(Davis DT73.A4 F7)

This work is a thorough presentation of Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty, that which instituted and patronized the Library. The first volume gives a 'framework of Alexandrian life' and discusses the city's achievements. Fraser devotes a whole chapter to the Library and the mouseion: "Ptolemaic Patronage: the Mouseion and Library" (chapter 6) and another chapter (11) to a study of one of the librarian's notable scholars: "The Horizon of Callimachus." The extent of Fraser's research is indicated by the fact that he devotes the entire second volume to the notes on the text. This is pleasing to the casual reader, for his attention is not distracted from the narrative by copious footnotes. The third volume presents several indexes on areas such as classical authors and Arabic sources. The work has a scholarly and pleasing style. It is cited very often in writings on the Library.

Marlowe, John. The Golden Age of Alexandria: From its Foundation by Alexander the Great in 331 BC to its Capture by the Arabs in 642 AD. London: Victor Gollancz Limited, 1971.
(D.H. Hill DT154.A4 M37)

Marlowe's history begins with a brief but helpful overview of Greek history before Alexander established the Hellenic empire. His work has a topical organization. He looks at areas such as "The Pursuit of Love" and "The Pursuit of God." He focuses on the Library in chapter four, on "The Pursuit of Learning." Marlowe's history is comprehensive and his style is pleasant, but he often seems opinionated. His work is often cited.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Ian Shaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
(UL DT 83.0946 2000)

As its title indicates, this work presents an overview of the Ancient Egyptian history. A chapter on the "Ptolemaic Period" (pp. 395-421) by Alan B. Lloyd gives a thorough and clear description of the country under its last dynasty of kings. The Library is directly addressed briefly on pages 405-6. The entire chapter, however, presents the motivations, people, and events which affected the Library and does so in an interesting style. The work has many beautiful maps and colored plates.

The Oxford History of the Classical World. Ed. John Boardman, Jasper Griffen, and Oswyn Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
(Davis Ref. Bay # 5 DE 59.094 1986)

The purpose of this work is to provide a more concise version of the Oxford Classical Dictonary, though in essay format. Chapter 14, by Robin Lane Fox, deals with "Hellenistic Culture and Literature." Pages 340-342 and 351 deal with the Library. The whole chapter is relevant, though; the Library played a central part in the literature of the period.

Vrettos, Theodore. Alexandria: City of the Western Mind. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
(Davis DT73.A4 V73 2001)

Alexandria has had an impact on many aspects of succeeding societies. This work addresses the achievements that has made it so influential, among them the Library. Vrettos discusses the Library directly on pages 39-40. However, pages 34-74 discuss issues related to the Library. Here Vrettos writes on topics such as other known Greek libraries and the scholars who benefited from the collection located specifically in Alexandria. An interesting feature of the work is the list of "Principal Characters" in the opening pages (xv-xvii).

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Library History

The Alexandrian Library played a pivotal role in the development of libraries. Almost any history of libraries, then, includes an overview of this institution. These are valuable in a study of the Library, for the context of other ancient libraries helps to demonstrate how unique and groundbreaking the Alexandrian Library really was.

Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
(SILS Z 722.C37 2001)

Casson devotes chapter three (pp. 31-47) to the Library of Alexandria. He describes the components which came together to make the Library such a legendary institution. Casson has nothing new to relate about the Library, but he writes in a highly entertaining style, presenting anecdotes associated with some of the Library's prominent figures.

Harris, Michael H. History of Libraries in the Western World. 4th ed. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
(SILS Z 721.H227 1995)

Here the Alexandrian Library is presented within the context of other Greek libraries (chapter 4). When seen in this light, the elements that make the Alexandrian institution legendary are brought into sharp focus. Harris deals specifically with this Library on pages 42-47. He gives a full yet concise presentation, touching on issues such as whether the Library actually had a crippling effect on literature and on how it can be seen as a prototype for the national libraries of today.

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, Alfred Hessel and Reuben Peiss. The Memory of Mankind: The Story of Libraries Since the Dawn of History. (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001.
( SILS Z 721.H582 2001)

This work presents the Alexandrian Library in an easy style while touching on the debatable issues, such as the status of various men associated with the Library. The presentation takes into account archaeological finds. The work has many intriguing illustrations, depicting artistic renderings of ancient libraries. Pages 7-10 deal specifically with the Alexandrian Library, but the entire chapter presents a valuable context for a full study of the Library.

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