Many iconic ruins across the world are all that remains of the libraries of the past. Who built these libraries? Who created the first ‘public library’? And were the libraries of the past built to spread knowledge, or to serve as monuments memorialising those who built them? Greg Woolf, joint author of Ancient Libraries (Cambridge, April 2013) discusses the origins of ancient libraries and the legacy they have left behind. To purchase ‘Ancient Libraries’ with a special 20% discount please visit here and use discount code AncientLibraries2014*

The most iconic ruin of ancient Ephesos – modern Efes, which gives its name to Turkey’s best known lager – is a library. Its spectacular façade and elegant columns commemorate Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, local boy made very good indeed, a Greek who became a Roman citizen, then a senator, a consul and who finally returned to govern his home province of Asia. Celsus spent a good deal of money on Ephesus but the library is his real memorial – for he was buried in it, and it was built by his son using a legacy left expressly for that purpose.

The great public libraries of today’s cities have their origin in ideals of universal education and literacy, the democratization of Enlightenment ideals. But very few of Celsus’ fellow citizens could read, and even those who could had little access to literature. Books were copied laboriously by hand – usually by slave hands – onto rolls of papyrus, a material that had to be imported from Egypt. Scrolls were fabulously expensive, and fabulously rare, so most ancient libraries were treasuries. Assyrian kings had filled their palaces with thousands of clay tablets impressed with cuneiform. Egyptian temples guarded their sacred scrolls. Generations of Babylonian astronomer priests recorded their observations and calculations. Not until the fourth century BC did we know much about private book ownership in classical Greece: Aristotle’s books were the foundation of a philosophical school. When the Macedonian kings completed the Great Library of Alexandria it was world famous. But we know nothing of what it looked like nor even who was allowed in to look at the books.

It was the Roman emperors who invented the grand, monumental public library. Celsus’ generosity to Ephesos imitated the library building of the emperor Trajan in Rome, and Trajan was following in a tradition that went back to the first emperor Augustus. Augustus emperor was no democrat. He created libraries for the people of Rome just as he provided them with pleasure gardens and displayed Greek statues in marble colonnades around the City. The Roman people were being offered a taste of the cultural life that only the rich had enjoyed. And at the same time the emperor advertised his own learning, drew attention to his court poets, the cultivated peace he had brought (funded, he did not say, from the proceeds of civil war).

Emperors were trend setters. A few years before work began on Celsus’ bibliographic mausoleum, another of Trajan’s protegés was presenting a library to his fellow citizens in Como in North Italy. The senator Pliny describes in a letter his nerves before his formal speech of presentation to the town councillors. His gifts to his home town expressed his values just as much as the gifts of any Victorian philanthropist. He paid for a public teacher, provided funds for the raising of children, left money for a bathhouse and also money for the upkeep of the library. It is easy to focus on the pride of these figures, on their determination to be appreciated in their lifetimes and remembered after their deaths. But there is something magnificent too about a generation that filled the cities of the empire with great monuments to its culture of learning. Most of the libraries have crumbled, but enough of their books survive to remind us what we could lose if we are not careful.

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