Mad About Science: Libraries

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Well, I work at the library, so I think it’s only fair that I make an article on libraries. What’s scientific about a library? Check the 500s in Nonfiction.

But seriously, we might be a science column, but if you haven’t noticed we like to touch base on history, philosophy, psychology— in fact, most things you can put a “y” behind. All right, I’ll admit it, I’m just trying to teach you things and make you giggle.

So where do we start? Time for a Wayback Machine! By now you know our penchant for going back in time and looking at things from a new vantage point. So how old is the idea of a library? The oldest collections we’ve discovered are from ancient libraries from about 2600 BC, in ancient Sumer. Don’t ask to check any of these items out here in town,.I don’t think we can get an Interlibrary Loan for a 4600 year old clay tablet (not that Amy wouldn’t be amused to see you request one.).

Did libraries work like they do now, back then? Could I check out movies and books in ancient Babylon?

Not exactly. In all likelihood, the only way you were going to see any of the collection was if you were a priest, an aristocrat or a merchant. Much of what was kept in these ancient libraries were economic transcripts, receipts for massive purchases and religious texts along with genealogical information on the various gods and rulers of the time.

What about the Library of Alexandria? That was an important thing, right? Could I get movies there?

No, you wouldn’t be able to check out movies from a library for another 2250 years or so. There’s no reason you couldn’t have seen a play outside, but that’s the best I can give you for now.

The Library of Alexandria was a center of scholarly importance in the ancient world, constructed in the third century BC. It was a part of the Museum of Alexandria, basically the engine of Egypt’s Corvette, so to speak.

The Library of Alexandria was probably more similar in function to a modern university than a library. They had meeting rooms, stacks of collections, gardens and even a dining area. Sounds a lot like our library, so how is it different?

The Library of Alexandria was focused primarily on collecting and translating important works from around the world. Translation is handled exclusively through the publishers of books now, and collection is much easier than it was in ancient Egypt. Back then, you couldn’t just put an order in to Amazon and wait for FedEx to show up by camel. You had to manually collect the items then translate them by hand. It was an incredible feat of political, economic and scholarly prowess for its age, one of the many reasons that it stood for over 300 years. Tragically, the Romans started the downward spiral of the library around 40 BC. The structure, and most of the collection, became the victim of Caesar’s civil war and much of it burned.

Over the following 600 years, the library managed to rebuild and enhance bits of its collection until the army of Amir ibn al’ Aas delivered the coup de grace and burned it to the ground.

Nine hundred years isn’t such a bad run, though! With some luck and a bit of elbow grease, maybe our library district will last that long.

That was cool. So what about library cats?

It just wouldn’t be a published article in the age of the Internet without mentioning cats. Yes, library cats! They are most definitely a thing.

So why cats? Why not dogs, or lizards, or geese?

Cats are unique predators. They’re tame, they’re pretty predictable and they’re social when they want to be but mostly keep to themselves. We have evidence of library cats being used in ancient Egypt, as long ago as 300 BC. It turns out that vermin like rats and mice really like eating paper and destroying vast quantities of human information. It also turns out that cats really like hunting rats and mice. Even after vermin stopped being a problem thanks to advanced construction and regular maintenance, library cats stuck around. These adorable little vermin hunters got a promotion from janitorial duty to PR managers. Word on the street is, it came with a pretty big pay raise (but they’re sensitive about it, don’t bring it up).

There’s a lot more to libraries, but we’re on a number crunch, and I’m currently lamenting the lack of a library goose. Maybe if you stop by the library and check out a book about libraries, your knowledge on our wonderful institutions will grow, and your thirst for knowledge will be quenched.

Personally, I’m still lamenting the lack of a library goose.

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