The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. In its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) came close. In our time, the Library of Congress, now the largest, did not pass that size till the late 1800s.
The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. At 490,000 scrolls it probably came close that for Greek books.
It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age. It had labs, an observatory, a botanical garden and a zoo with a polar bear.
The Museum and Library gave us, among other things:
- putting things in alphabetical order,
- dividing a work into “books” (= separate scrolls),
- the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament),
- the works of Homer as we know them,
- grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them,
- the first good measurement of how big the earth is,
- latitude and longitude,
The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but seems to have been opened to the public.
Ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library sent buyers abroad to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better. If it had several old copies of the same book, it would work out what the original must have been. That is how the Library came to have the most trustworthy copies in the world.
It had the stolen originals of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and books from the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus..
Languages: it had books in at least Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic (Babylonian) and Hebrew..
The Library was (partly) destroyed in:
- -48 under Julius Caesar, who may have taken some of its books to Rome;
- 272 under Aurelian to put down an uprising in Alexandria;
- 295 under Diocletian to put down yet another uprising;
- 391 under Theodosius when the Serapis branch was destroyed as a temple to idols;
- 646 when Arabs destroyed what remained.
Of its books, 99% are lost forever. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have much of what do have, through copying and recopying, like the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.
Of the physical remains of the actual books that once sat in the Library, all we have are some torn pages.
– Abagond, 2006, 2015.
- ancient Egypt
- Hipparchus – his work at the Library gave us latitude and longitude
- Why the Septuagint matters