The Library of Alexandria
May 17 13:48:05 2009
One of the most important, but least appreciated aspects of the library at Alexandria was its development and contribution to textual criticism. With so many different copies of texts being brought to and accumulated in one place it became apparent that there were variations. By collating and comparing the copies one is able to make judgments about the source of the variations. These can be used to make decisions and corrections and arrive at a best or canonical version that would be used for future copies. The Library is known for its work on the Homeric epics which were carefully edited and reached their standard form at the Library in the second century BC. While we value the careful scholarship and preservation of these texts at the Library of Alexandria, one can’t help but wonder about the loss of all the variations that might still have existed of what was once a (or more likely several) orally transmitted traditions.
Another crucial but underappreciated development that came from the large accumulation of texts at Alexandria was the need for a system of organization and catalog. These things seem so obvious and indispensable to us that it is hard to imagine it was an idea that someone had to come up with. However the idea of arranging the collection by authors and subjects is attributed to the second librarian, Callimachus of Cyrene, around the time of 245 BC. He created the Pinakes, the first library catalog, which unfortunately only survives in fragments. The Pinakes was based upon Aristotle’s classification and included rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural philosophy and a category for miscellaneous items. Each category included and alphabetical list of authors, a short biographical sketch, a summary of their writings and the provenance of the texts. This system was highly influential. It was copied extensively variations of it were still in use the in the 19th century.