Monday, August 3, 2020


THE GREAT LIBRARY of Alexandria, founded around 300 BC by the Egyptian king Ptolemy I, has always been the ultimate symbol of scholarly endeavour. It was here that the idea of encompassing knowledge in one place by collecting a copy of every single text was born. This “dream of universality” has haunted book collectors and librarians ever since, and lies at the heart of modern copyright libraries, which are entitled to one copy of each book published in their own country. Like all the most successful bibliophiles, the kings of Egypt and their librarians were doggedly unscrupulous in the pursuit of this dream: stealing, borrowing, begging—anything to increase the collections. They ordered that all ships passing through Alexandria should be searched and any scrolls found on board confiscated. These were then labelled “from the ships” and shelved in the Library. When the Athenians lent valuable scrolls for copying, the Egyptians refused to return them, choosing instead to keep the originals and send back copies, forfeiting the huge sum of money they had paid as surety. This aggressive acquisition policy paid off and within a couple of decades the Library contained thousands on every subject from cookery to Jewish theology—a collection unequalled, both in size and subject matter, anywhere on the planet. But the Ptolemaic kings did not just collect books, they collected minds as well. They established a community of scholars in the shrine they had built to glorify the Muses—the nine Greek goddesses who inspired the arts and sciences. It became known as the Museum (Mouseion) and was closely linked with the Library; scholars from across the Mediterranean world were invited to come and work there. As time went on, a daughter library was created in the Temple of Serapis (the Serapeum) to house the ever-increasing collections.

Violet Moller, The Map of Knowledge (19). Knopf Doubleday [2019] Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.