Casson’s Libraries in the Ancient World is a delightful book that outlines the story of the earliest libraries, their organization, the emergence and development of books and book copying that makes modern libraries similar to the primeval ones. Akin to contents of the great libraries of Alexandria and the Roman Empire, Casson’s Libraries belonged to the categories of books whose covers were unrolled rather than turned, hand written and contained no punctuation. Casson makes use of photographs and diagrams to illustrate his main endeavors in the book which are exemplified by Alexandrian, Roman and Greek Libraries, early writings, transition of the book form from papyrus roll to codex as well as a recount of the beginning of the Middle Ages. At this time, Greek literature was admired and considered as intellectual. In this regard, many writings were geared towards adapting the Greek styles. However, the Greek libraries only contained scrolls and did not provide for reading in them.
Library in the Ancient World has failed to present to the readers when the library in the Museum at Alexandria was established since the book only states “.around 300 BC or a few decades later” (p.31). Moreover, apart from the director, there are no mentioned staffs of the library and any other form of administration. Inasmuch is this is one of the shortcomings in the book we should appreciate Casson’s erudite efforts towards approaching the history of these libraries in an inclusive way, mustering any finding he came across. He has also produced an informative volume as well as incorporated methodologies that enable readers acquire basic ways of making accurate inferences. Nonetheless, to better understand the impact, relevance, shortcoming and usefulness of this book, it would be imperative to analyze it from two main perspectives: the book as targeting the general readers and the book as targeting scholars.
For the General Reader
For the general readership, this book provides a historical account of events leading to emergence of libraries. To begin with, chapter one talks about Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh which was found in the Near East (p. 9-15). These libraries might be the only known forms from antiquity due to the fact that, in some instances, Casson identified a number of written texts and geographical location believed to have been their cradle. During this time, Casson attempted to coin the terms “archive” and “library” though did not define these terms. He however observed that a library was not just to be made up of date-sensitive materials but also had to include a compilation of different texts. The next three chapters cover the various occasions taking place in Greece. The second chapter touches on the Athens of the 4th and 5th century with an outlined review of the scholarly and societal case that contributed to the establishment of libraries.
Casson further went on to assume that two men, Atticus and Cicero, owned huge libraries that would require professional assistance to manage. This was partly true because only Atticus had a large library that had professional staff. Cicero on the other hand, had a relatively small group of staff. Chapter Seven outlines the libraries in the outskirts of the Rome with Western front having few libraries while the Eastern front had quite a number of established libraries. In the next chapter, Casson describes the changeover from the use of rolls to codex, and observes consequent outcomes of the transition. He argues that the use of codex, for example, made reading simpler for it could be controlled using one hand, as opposed to rolls (p.129). Codices could also be easily stacked and offered easy retrieval from the shelves (p. 145-135). The last chapter recounts a series or interrelated phenomena, including the developments in the East, and the ancient accounts of libraries in the monastery.
The book also deals with quite a number of secondary cases. Illustratively, the information on the background material is given in the earlier chapters (p.23-26), while discussions on literacy are given in the later chapters. This particular section gives this reading a native harmony that might have been missing.
This suggests that Casson presents a collection of materials that are comprehensive and informative enough for a general reader. He often omits some information in his coverage and seldom explains anything in whole or as a whole. However, he is cautious and responsible in justifying his arguments, while lack of inclusion of given items does not necessarily break down the logical arrangement of the book or misrepresent the picture he is trying to present. There are no footnotes in his literature, but Casson suppose his ideas with accurate and precise arguments in end notes. He avoids scholarly controversies, with simple presentation of what he regards as what would be highly probable outcome.
Even though there are some cases of references disagreements with other scholars, Casson is careful not to illicit much criticism as he presents points of disagreements mildly. For example, in his notes concerning literacy; Casson simply infers from germane references and is not drawn into polemics. Therefore, this book is not limited to the emergency of libraries; it presents the social history outlining the importance of libraries as we know them today and therefore provide a rich historical insight for the general readers.
Researchers, who would like to use Libraries in the Ancient World for reference purposes, are urged to be more careful. Casson, in the Preface section of the book writes “presents whatever is known about [libraries] from this butdown the early Byzantine Period” (p. ix). However, this may be misleading since Casson ends up giving illustrations as opposed to compiled texts while neglecting marginal cases. As evident in his work, there are some of the instances of the Roman dates. For instance, Casson omitted the library of Pantheon organized in the Rome’s public libraries which had been characteristic of Sextus Lulius Africanus in the 3rd century AD.
These kinds of omissions go against his claim in the preface and therefore may present a raw deal to whomever wishes to have a complete and comprehensive understanding of the development of libraries, mainly by basing Libraries in the Ancient World by Casson as his/her main source. Moreover, with gentle contradiction to other scholars that preceded this work and had written about the same, the book is subject to more criticism, historical and archaeological research to justify or falsify assertions in the book. Nonetheless, it is a source of reflection and a foundation for deeper understanding and research.
He also did not touch on the Capitoline library but only mentioned about it devastation. The libraries of Italy and Dertona are also missing in the texts (p.109-111). With regard to libraries which had been established in the provinces, Casson observes the dissimilarities between the Eastern and the Western libraries in terms of the number of libraries that were erected in both regions. Casson on his account viewed as an accident any existence of proof, and that other libraries, if any, would be identified or discovered when the remaining cities had excavated in the West (p. 121). This however held some truth since no other library has been discovered yet besides Glanum, Lepcis, Pompeii, Aquileia, Vasio, or Ostia. Some other factors such as the cultural difference could also contribute to this factor.
Despite the fact that Casson presents most of the libraries that his readers are acquainted with, it can be argued that he omitted those that were referred to from single sources. There were quite a large number of such libraries, in the Provinces in the East, given the numerous libraries that existed. Other factors that Casson might have omitted in his book include information about possible staff of these libraries. Therefore, scholars should understand that there are pitfalls in the Libraries in the Ancient World, in case they are intending to us it as a reference. It cannot be based as an up-to-date reference material or as an aid to carry out a comprehensive treatment of a particular topic. As is evident from the book, Casson exhausts his topics and tends to avoid problematic ideas of evidence. It would have been commendable to access all the complete treatments of various problems that arise when studying libraries of the ancient world.
In conclusion, Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson is an intuitive easy to read book that gives a historical account of earlier libraries and how they were organized. Moreover, the book recounts the development of books overtime and book copying while emphasizing on the similarities between the ancient libraries and the contemporary libraries. Some of the strengths of the book lie in the fact that Casson has created compacted facts into a fascinating read while being keen to present political ideologies that have marked the establishment and development of libraries. The book however fails in presenting “all” facts that were involved in this endeavor by omitting relevant and useful information. Through a synthesis of how the book relates to the general readers and scholars, we have been able to establish that it is indeed timeless and not bound by audience. Its rich historical accounts are important to scholars as well as the general readers who wish to know the development of books as well as trace the origin and transitions that have marked book development. This is therefore a good read, insightful and informative.
Lionel Casson. Libraries in the Ancient World. Yale University Press, 2002