Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: libraries

Codex Books Supplant Scrolls

November 16, 2008

In the century before the fall of Rome, the unwieldy 12-foot-long papyrus scrolls of Alexandria had started to cede room on the shelves to a new form of document: the codex book, so named because it originated from attempts to “codify” the Roman law in a format that supported easier information retrieval. The new format boasted a more navigable interface, featuring leafed pages bound between durable hard covers. Not only was the new format more resilient than the carefully wound scrolls that preceded it, it facilitated a new way of engaging with the text. Scrolls, by their physical nature, demanded linear reading from start to finish. They required a commitment on the part of the reader and resisted attempts to extract individual nuggets of information. But with a codex book, readers could now flip between pages easily to pinpoint any passage in a text. As Hobart and Schiffman write, “The codex had the potential to transform the manuscript from a cumbersome mnemonic aid to a readily accessible information storehouse.”

The new technology of the book ushered in a whole new way of reading: random access. A document no longer had to be read from top to bottom; its pages could be flipped, allowing the reader to move around at will. By letting users move freely from page to page, the new book allowed readers to form their own networks of association within a particular text. Scrolls, on the other hand, encouraged linear reading. The book also had one more considerable advantage over the old scrolls: portability. While collections of papyrus scrolls and codex books coexisted in late Roman libraries, the destruction of the empire saw most of the great old library collections burned, plundered, or scattered. The codex book format proved hardier and more portable than the old scrolls; as a result, many scrolls failed to survive the fall of the Roman empire, and a great deal of the literature that lived on did so between the covers of bound books.

Glut, p. 79

Emphasis mine.

Libraries as Vessels of Political Power

November 16, 2008

The earliest libraries were first and foremost vessels of political power, consolidating the accumulated intellectual capital of the early nation-states and providing a durable link with the past by invoking religious authority and asserting a relationship to the gods. The gods, by extension, protected the library, and the genealogical relationships of the gods, echoing old folk taxonomies, found a new manifestation in the nested hierarchies of state institutions.

The first libraries existed primarily to support these growing imperial hierarchies. In China, the earliest known library dates to 1400 [B.C.E.]. In Egypt, Rameses II established a sacred library at Thebes in 1225 [B.C.E.]. The first Indian manuscript collections date as far back as 1000 [B.C.E.]. Each of these great imperial civilizations seems to have progressed along a markedly similar (though far from identical) path: Agricultural settlements developed a commercial facility for writing, enabling them to make the transition from tribal societies to nation-states. As some of those nation-states grew into empires, they began producing more varied forms of literature that were eventually gathered into libraries.

The fates of those libraries would prove no less turbulent than the empires that built them. Indeed, the advent of literacy and book making has invariably been accompanied by violence and political turmoil. When the Emperor Shi Huangdi consolidated power over the Chinese Empire in 213 [B.C.E.], he promptly ordered an imperial biblioclasm, commanding the destruction of every book in the kingdom. Soldiers demolished the old royal library, a priceless trove of early Confucian and Taoist texts known as the Heavenly Archives (whose most famous curator was Lao Tzu). After clearing the brush of the prior regime’s intellectual legacy, the emperor created a new library, complete with a new classification system to reflect the new imperial order….

Glut, p. 55