Friday, February 02, 2007

Ancient and Medieval Libraries

I found this great history page Ancient and Medieval Libraries. It was created by Christopher Brown-Syed of the State University of New York at Buffalo. I am a big fan of libraries and found this essay very interesting.

From the site:

What do librarians do? What principles lie behind the profession? Librarians have traditionally gathered, organized, and disseminated information. In some ways, Aristotle can be said to be the father of librarianship in the West. His categories were a scheme for deciding what something was about. They survive today in the rules of journalism. Who, what, when, where, why, by what means, and to what end? This scheme for organizing thought is still viable. Aristotle did not run a library in the modern sense, but he was one of the recorded collectors of books.

Many other philosophers have served as librarians over the centuries. They include Hypatia, Librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the profession's most interesting early proponents. She was certainly not the only member of her circle concerned with recorded knowledge. Her friend, Synesius of Cyrene, wrote "my life has been one of books." However, Hypatia's professionalism and her untimely demise are of interest to the present day. The former was characterized by what we now call "advocacy skills", and the latter revolved around what we might call a "challenge to intellectual freedom". I quote Parsons:

"Hypatia, daughter of Theon, last fellow of the Museum, who was a famed mathematician and philosopher, and who had succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, was a woman of great learning and highest character. Socrates, the Church historian describes her: 'The daughter of the philosopher Theon, who was so learned that she surpassed all contemporary philosophers. She carried on the Platonic tradition derived from Plotinus, and instructed those who desired to learn in all philosophic discipline. Wherefore all those wishing to work at philosophy streamed in from all parts of the world, collecting around her on account of her learned and courageous character. She maintained a dignified intercourse with the chief people of the city. She was not ashamed to spend time in the society of men, for all esteemed her highly, and admired her for her purity'. Damascius, the last of the Neo-Platonic teachers, praises her beauty and chastity, and Philostorgius the Arian says she was superior to her father in astronomy. She was called the August Mistress and like many a world teacher, none of her writings survive."

The poet Palladas called her "Adorable Hypatia, Unsullied Star of True Philosophy". She had the misfortune to be an adherent of the philosophy of Plato at a time during which it was (temporarily) out of favour. She was murdered by an angry mob. Competing theories suggest that Hypatia was murdered either because she promoted the classical writers a bit too vigorously, or because she ascribed to the Arian heresy.

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