Those Dusty Old Tomes

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

THOSE DUSTY OLD TOMES haunt me, inspire me, enrage me, calm me: they are my best friends and my arch-nemeses. I turn the pages quickly, then slowly–slowly, then quickly–skimming the words and frequently returning, crunching on and digesting them one by one as they nourish my heart and soul.

The library is nearly silent this afternoon. A man sets down a stack of books on an adjacent table, pausing to see if he has disturbed anyone. I inhale, and a pleasant sort of mustiness enters my nostrils; history is vibrantly alive here. This cozy, massive den with towers of books in every direction, this place where echos of the past silently resound, acts as a portal to and connection with–or perhaps mural of–humanity itself. How and when did this all begin? And will it end?

An avid reader, Benjamin Franklin began the first public library in the US in 1731 because he wanted to study and share his love of learning with others. Books were quite expensive at the time, and it made sense to compile them so that all could benefit (for a small fee). Many other societies had collected and organized books and materials prior to Franklin, but determining what was, in fact, the first library, really depends on how you frame the question.

What is the oldest continuously operating library? Most scholars agree that that would be Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, Egypt. It is believed that Saint Catherine’s was built to protect and enshrine the area where Moses saw the Burning Bush (Exodus 3). Others say that the Al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, is the oldest, although that has undergone significant reconstruction in recent years after it was discovered that there was a river running beneath the edifice–resulting in rot and mold and the like.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in present-day Iraq [formerly Assyria] is considered to be the oldest royal library, and while it was destroyed, archaeologists have uncovered more than 30,000 clay tablets amidst the ruins. The tablets are covered in cuneiform script, the earliest known form of writing. Alexander the Great was inspired by The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal to build his own collection–which became the Library of Alexandria in Egypt; this is toted as one of the largest collections of the ancient world; however, it was unfortunately also destroyed.

Fast-forwarding to present day, we find that the query itself has expanded: new categories abound. It is no longer a matter of defining only the oldest or continually operative library–what about 45+ of the most majestic libraries in the world? Or those buildings housing rare documents, such as Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? Or how about futuristic-looking libraries, like this one in Tianjin, China?

Tianjin, China–Image Source / Original photos by Ossip van Duivenbode

While Google is well on its way to organizing and documenting the history of humankind, much like a library, it is interesting to note that the library in Tianjin was labeled futuristic in multiple articles: the allure of a space in which you can get lost wandering the aisles, in which you can physically touch books and leaf through their pages–en lieu of clicking on them–would seem to remain an integral part of our future.

There are numerous reasons arguing why libraries should retain a place in society, but this article on The Digital Language Divide takes a unique angle, exploring the underrepresentation of languages and cultures in cyberspace. Technology is advancing faster than most of us can imagine and yet, it would appear that the algorithms still have a long way to go.

  • Library (English).
  • βιβλιοθήκη (Greek).
  • Biblioteca (Spanish).
  • ห้องสมุด (Thai).
  • Bókasafn (Icelandic).
  • مكتبة (Arabic).
  • Kirjasto (Finnish).
  • библиотека (Russian).
  • Maktaba (Swahili).
  • 图书馆 (Mandarin).
  • Bibliothèque (French).
  • סִפְרִיָה (Hebrew).
  • पुस्तकालय (Hindi).
  • Kütüphane (Turkish).
  • Könyvtár (Hungarian).
  • としょうかん (Japanese).
  • Bibliotheca (Latin).
  • Raamatukogu (Estonian).
  • Perpustakaan (Malay).
  • 도서관 (Korean).

I copy the beautiful letters, symbols, shapes, words, and characters from dictionaries with a pen onto paper, silently mouthing the foreign sounds. What would a library have been like a thousand years ago? My thoughts quickly boomerang back to modern life: I wonder if I could order papyrus from Amazon. It’s probably not too expensive. But Carr’s words pull me back into history:

One of the most important things to realize about reading, is that it is a fairly new invention in human history. […] One of the fascinating things about early writing, on slates, on papyrus, even on early handwritten books is, for instance, there were no spaces between the words. People just wrote in continuous script. And that’s because that’s the way we hear speech.

You know, when somebody’s talking to us, they are not carefully putting pauses between words; it all flows together. The problem with that, though, is it’s very hard to read. A lot of your mental energy goes to figuring out where does one word end and the next begin, and as a result, all reading was done in the early years aloud. There was no such thing as silent reading, because you had to read aloud in order to figure out, where is a word ending or where is a word beginning.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

If people seldom read to themselves, would libraries have been noisy, cacophonous venues, everyone shouting over everyone else? Or would a main speaker have taken charge–the present day story-time librarian–inviting the throngs to partake in a community reading? Are libraries on the verge of disappearing, or will they be here for centuries to come? How will they evolve? Should they? What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment below.

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains