The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World

By Yun Lee Too. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 250 pp. $90.00 (hardback). ISBN 13 978-0-19-957780-4.

Yun Lee Too, a noted classical scholar, shows more interest in the literary evidence of ancient libraries, and how ancients thought about libraries, than the libraries themselves. Even so, the title promises more than the book delivers as the scope is limited to the Greco-Roman, not the ancient world in general. Although for the most part texts are translated, those with little Greek or Latin might find the occasional untranslated passage annoying. Further, the editing is poor for such a prestigious press. Nonetheless, Too weaves her way skillfully among many literary sources as she shows herself a master of the literature.

Too combines a close attention to surviving texts with a sometimes disconcerting uncertainty in interpretation. She claims “the library becomes an expression of power” (9) only to conclude “that there was something of a confluence between intellectual and political power in antiquity” (31, emphasis mine). Again, much later, she calls Hadrian’s donated library in Athens “an act of euergetism on the part of the emperor, as so many libraries were,” rather than a political action taken for political reasons (196).

The author has an interesting chapter on how library catalogs were internalized as ways to direct readers, in effect a readers advisory without the librarian. Her evidence mainly comes from Pliny the Elder and Aulus Gellius with only brief attention given to Callimachus. Chapter 3, about the breathing library—that is, the person who is “the embodied receptacle of bookish cultures” (84) because of his intimate knowledge of texts—was intriguing. Chapters 4 and 5 explore how titling a book as a library “lends a particular authority to the claim of universal authority” (143), which in itself indicates the prestige libraries held at the time. Chapter 5 focuses on Diodorus Siculus, who wrote the largest extant history of Greece. Next, Too explores the impact statues and busts had on readers in the classic library.

Too’s final chapter delivers the meat a historian, as opposed to a literary scholar, might sink teeth into. For instance, she sees the head of the Alexandrian Library as a priest-critic who “ministers to his books as if they were divine objects…a significant political figure…linked to the political establishment through a structure of patronage” (224). The “socialibility” that its scholars experienced may well, however, been “dysfunctional” as opposed to a later Roman private-public library established by Lucullus and described by Plutarch. Public libraries were still elitist institutions but more open than in Hellenistic times. “Exclusion from the ancient library signifies an individual’s exclusion from society” (238).

While wide ranging, Too’s work will be of more use to classical scholars than library historians and students who remain better served by Lionel Casson’s Libraries in the Ancient World (2001) and Olof Pedersén’s Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East (1998).

Patrick Valentine, East Carolina University