The archives and texts at Ebla, ca. 2500 to the destruction of the city ca. 2250 BC, constitute the oldest organized library yet discovered.
The Library of Alexandria, fl. 3rd century BC (c. 295 BC). The date of its destruction is uncertain, but it supposedly housed one of the largest collections in the classical world.
The Imperial Library of Constantinople, founded in 330 AD, was largely destroyed or burned by crusaders during the Fourth Crusade.
The Royal Library of Ctesiphon, Khvârvarân, Persia, was destroyed in AD 651 by the invading Arabs. All the books were thrown into the Euphrates.
It is an intriguing exercise to imagine the ancient legends, poetry, and forgotten knowledge which was lost in these tragedies of history. The medium by which our ancestors recorded these texts was a fragile system at best. Parchment was occasionally used from the second century B.C. and it eventually became the material of choice for writers, replacing papyrus which according to Lucretius and other authors, tell how the rolls crunch and go to pieces. Similar to how magnetic tape was replaced by compact discs in our time, parchment began to slowly be replaced by Arabic paper. This evolution has been referred to as the three p's of cultural history: papyrus, parchment and paper. There has recently been the advent of a fourth "p" in the continued attempt to preserve our ancestors words. The PC or personal computer.
Preservation of our greatest works was always important to past civilizations, and libraries were constructed to guard and keep these treasures. The greatest enemy to ancient libraries was fire, and as the above examples mention this destruction reoccurred throughout history. How is it then, that today we still have access to our Holy scriptures, Homer's Odyssey and Iliad? Who preserved the histories of the ancient Greeks and Romans? It was the devotion of emperors and kings who knew the importance of preserving these treasures for generations to come. Scriptoriums were established to safeguard and distribute their libraries collections. Copies were created by hand and circulated to other libraries, and so we find that with the destruction of one library a copy existed elsewhere. Copying by hand from brittle scrolls was a long and arduous task. It frequently came down to the discretion of a few individuals to decide what was deemed significant to preserve.
We live in a golden age for knowledge. Technology has made it possible to scan just about every book ever written and contained in libraries throughout the world and publish them to the web through sites like Project Gutenberg and the Google eBook store. With the invention of eBooks, such as the Nook and Kindle, a person can digitally collect and preserve millions of books on a devise the size of just one typical paperback. Each and every time a person buys such a devise and downloads their selection of books, they are not just simply reading great literature, but are in fact preserving history like the scriptoriums of the past. Perhaps we will never again experience the tragedy of losing important works of art to invasion or fire ever again.
With this rapid catalogue of antique and historical texts becoming available everyday (and for free!), how does one navigate his way. I wanted to create a blog that chronicled my own discoveries and to share with those who are searching for their next read.