A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 1

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Bibliotheca and Libraria—what do these words signify? The Kings of old had Libraries, especially those of Egypt.

THE word bibliotheca is used to signify any one of three things: a place in which books are kept, a bookcase, or books themselves. The Greek word, bibliotheca, came into use among the Romans. They also used the word libraria; but it is more exact to understand by that word a shop where books are kept for sale. Collections of books, bibliothecae, date from the earliest days, and, if I am not mistaken, were established as soon as letters were invented. The art of writing must have arisen almost as soon as man began to learn and to think; and this art would not have been profitable if books had not been preserved and arranged for present and future use.

At first these collections were private undertakings, each person gathering for himself and his family; in the course of time kings and dynasties took up the custom and collected books, not only for use, but also to gratify their ambition and to add to their renown. Indeed, it was scarcely within the power of a private person to collect many books, since the process of copying them was a slow and expensive one; though our lately discovered most useful art of printing has now simplified it.

Osymandyas of Egypt was of all kings the first, as far as history shows, to have a library of any note. Along with other famous deeds he established, says Diodorus, a library of sacred literature, and placed over the entrance the inscription: "Here is Medicine for the Mind." Though he was one of the earliest of the Egyptian kings, I do not doubt that his example was thereafter faithfully followed, even if the library he is said to have founded never in fact existed; for in Egypt there have always been libraries, especially in temples, under the care of priests. Many facts may be cited as evidence for the truth of this statement, among others this one about Homer: a certain Naucrates accused Homer of plagiarism, and said that when the latter went to Egypt he found there the books of a woman, Phantasia, who had written the Iliad and the Odyssey and placed them in the temple of Vulcan at Memphis; and that there Homer saw them, appropriated them, and published them as his own. As far as Homer is concerned I think this story false; but it establishes the fact in question, that it was the custom in Egypt to have libraries.