A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 9

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The Decoration of Libraries with Ivory and with Glass. Bookcases and Shelves, Tables and Seats.

I HAVE now gone rapidly over the early history of libraries and have mentioned those of which time has not destroyed all records. As to what I have written, I must confess that it is but a trivial mention of a great subject,—as the old saying goes, "a drop of water out of a full bucket." Yet I have said enough, perhaps, to act as an incentive or to serve as an example.

I shall add a few words on the decoration of libraries and the arrangement of their books.

From Isidore I learn that the more experienced architects did not think that the ceilings of libraries should be gilded, or that the floors should be made of any but Carystian marble; this because the glitter of gold is rather tiring to the eyes, while the green of Carystian marble rests them.

This is good advice from whomever it may have come. True it is, as my own experience proves, that a brilliant light is disturbing to the attention and makes writing difficult; and green is a colour which seems to rest and refresh the eyes.

Boethius adds something further to this subject of decoration, when he says, in his book on Consolation, "The walls were decorated with ivory and glass." Does he mean the walls of the room itself? It would seem so, for the bookcases or shelves were not placed against the walls, in which case the ornamentation of the latter would not have been seen, but were set out in the room, just as they are in most public libraries to-day. Glass cut in squares, circles, ovals, and rhomboids was used like marble tiles, to ornament the walls, though oftener the arches and the ceilings. Pliny says in his Natural History, book xxxvi, "Tiles made of earth they transformed into glass and put on the arches; and this is a recent invention." It was, then, still a novelty in the time of Nero and Seneca. Yet Seneca speaks of it as a common thing, in letter lxxxvi, on baths, where he says, "Unless the arch is covered with glass." On this point consult my work on the baths of the Romans.

That it was also used on the walls, Vopiscus, as well as Boethius, shows when he says in speaking of Firmus, "The house appears to have been covered over with squares of glass, with bitumen and other material between the squares." I think the bitumen was here used to fasten the squares of glass to the wall, and not to join them to each other. The joints between the pieces of glass were more appropriately covered with ivory, as Boethius seems to say they were. Ivory was placed also on the bookcases themselves; whence the phrase, "ivory library," in the Pandects. Seneca mentions bookcases made of cedar and ivory.

Common sense and the general fitness of the thing of course make it plain that there were bookcases in libraries; I would add the fact that the cases were numbered. Vopiscus so indicates when he says, "The Ulpian library has the elephant book in the sixth case." Whether by "elephant" he means made of ivory or of the skin of an elephant, I cannot say. The old scholiast in commenting on this phrase, from Juvenal, "Hic libros dabit et forulos" (This one will furnish you with books and cases), gives as an equivalent phrase, "Armaria, bibliotheca" (A library and the books in it). I think the word foruli (pigeonholes), as here used, properly means either compartments in the shelves, "nests" for the books, following Martial's use of the word; or, in Seneca's use of it, separate little cases for them. Sidonius speaks of these cases and of other things found in libraries. "Here," he says, "is an astonishing number of books and you would think yourself in a library and could see the shelves (plutei) of the grammarians; or the seats (cunei) of Athenaeus; or the lofty bookcases (armaria) of the booksellers." Plutei are the sloping tables on which books were placed for reading; cunei, the rows of seats, as explained in Athenaeus; and armaria, bookcases, generally wide and tall, as I have shown. These last Cicero seems to call pegmata in a letter to Atticus.