posted on May, 8 2008 @ 10:48 AM
John Tzetzes records several centuries later that Callimachus cataloged 400,000 "mixed" scrolls (probably those that contained more than one
chapter, work, or even author, see example in Vatican) and 90,000 "unmixed", plus an additional 42,000 in the Serapeum
John (Johannes) Tzetzes, (c. 1110 – 1180)
Demetrius of Phaleron
The first mention we have of the library is in The Letter of Aristeas (ca. 180-145 B.C.E.), a Jewish scholar housed at the Library chronicling the
translation of the Septuagint into Greek by seventy-two rabbis. This massive production was commissioned by the Athenian exile Demetrius of Phaleron
under his patron, Ptolemy I, Ptolemy Soter. Demetrius himself was a former ruler, no less than a ten-year tyrant of Athens, and a first-generation
Peripatetic scholar. That is, he was one of the students of Aristotle along with Theophrastus and Alexander the Great. Demetrius, helped into power in
Athens by Alexander's successor Cassander, provided backing for Theophrastus to found a Lyceum devoted to his master's studies and modelled after
Plato's Academy.  After Ptolemy I Soter, on of Alexander's successful generals, secured the kingship for himself of conquered Egypt, Theophrastus
turned down the Pharoah's invitation in 297 B.C.E to tutor Ptolemy's heir, and instead recommended Demetrius, who had recently been driven out from
Athens as a result of political fallout from the conflicts of Alexander's successors [Diog. Laert. 5.37].
Precedents for the Museum
According to Aristeas, Demetrius recommended Ptolemy gather a collection of books on kingship and ruling in the style of Plato's philosopher-kings,
and furthermore to gather books of all the world's people that he might better understand subjects and trade partners. Demetrius must also have
helped inspire the founding of a Museum in Ptolemy's capital, Alexandria, a temple dedicated to the Muses. This was not the first such temple
dedicated to the divine patrons of arts and sciences. However, coming as it did in the half-century after the establishment of Plato's Academy,
Aristotle's Lyceum, Zeno's Stoa and the school of Epicurus, and located in a rich center of international trade and cultural exchange, the place
and time were ripe for such an institution to flower. Scholars were invited there to carry out the Peripatetic activities of observation and deduction
in math, medicine, astronomy, and geometry; and most of the western world's discoveries were recorded and debated there for the next 500 years.
Archaeologists have not uncovered the foundations of the Museum, although they have excavated portions of the "daughter Library" in the nearby
temple of Serapis. From scattered primary sources this much seems relatively clear: it was in the Brucchium (northeast) sector of the city, probably
in or adjacent to the palace grounds. It was surrounded by courts, gardens, and a zoological park containing exotic animals from far-flung parts of
the Alexandrian empire. According to Strabo [17.1.8], at its heart was a Great Hall and a circular domed dining hall (perhaps Roman?) with an
observatory in its upper terrace; classrooms surrounded it. This is very similar to the layout of the Serapeum, which was begun by Ptolemy II
Philadelphus and completed by his son. An estimated 30-50 scholars were probably permanently housed there, probably fed and funded first by the
royal family, and later, according to an early Roman papyrus, by public money.
The physical shelves of the Library may have been in one of the outlying lecture halls or in the garden, or it may have been housed in the Great Hall.
They consisted of pigeonholes or racks for the scrolls, the best of which were wrapped in linen or leather jackets. Parchment skins--vellum-- came
into vogue after Alexandria stopped exporting papyrus in an attempt to strangle its younger rival library, set up by the Seleucids in Pergamon. In
Roman times, manuscripts started to be written in codex (book) form, and began to be stored in wooden chests called armaria .
Development of the Library
Aristeas, writing 100 years after the library's inception, records that Ptolemy I handed over to Demetrius the job of gathering books and scrolls, as
well as letting him supervise a massive effort to translate other cultures' works into Greek. This process began with the translation of the
Septuagint, the Old Testament, into Greek, for which project Ptolemy hired and housed 72 rabbis at Demetrius' suggestion. [Letter of Aristeas 9-10].
Acquisition of Books
At the time of Demetrius, Greek libraries were usually collections of manuscripts by private individuals, such as Aristotle's library of his own and
other works. Egypt's temples often had shelves containing an assortment of religious and official texts, as did certain Museums in the Greek world.
It was Ptolemy I's great ambition to possess all known world literature that pushed these idiosyncratic collections-- the web sites of the
ancient world-- into the realm of a true library. John Tzetzes records several centuries later that Callimachus cataloged 400,000 "mixed" scrolls
(probably those that contained more than one chapter, work, or even author, see example in Vatican) and 90,000 "unmixed", plus an additional 42,000
in the Serapeum. Ptolemy's successors' methods for achieving his goal were certainly unique. Ptolemy III wrote a letter "to all the world's
sovereigns" asking to borrow their books [Galen 17.1 Kühn p. 601ff], When Athens lent him the texts to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, he
had them copied, returned the copies, and kept the originals. Supposedly, all ships that stopped in the port of Alexandria were searched for books
which were given them same treatment, thus the term "ship libraries" for the collection housed in the Museum. This unorthodox procedure did at least
inspire the first systematic work in emendation and collation of classical texts without which none of the authors would have survived.
The First Librarians
While Demetrius was a convert of Serapis and thus probably an official of the new Greco-Egyptian cult invented by Ptolemy, the Serapeum was not
yet built at his death and he is remembered neither as librarian of that institution nor at the Museum. The first recorded Librarian was Zenodotus of
Ephesus, holding that post from the end of Ptolemy I's reign until 245 B.C.E. His successor Callimachus of Cyrene was perhaps Alexandria's most
famous librarian, creating for the first time a subject catalog in 120,000 scrolls of the Library's holdings, called the Pinakes or Tables. It
was by no means comprehensive, but was more like a good subject index on the web. Apollonius of Rhodes, his younger rival and the writer of the
notoriously meticulous epic, Argonautica, seems to have been Callimachus' replacement. Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Stoic geographer and
mathematician, succeeded him in 235, and compiled his "tetagmenos epi teis megaleis bibliothekeis", the "scheme of the great bookshelves". In 195
Aristophanes, a Homeric scholar of no relation to the comic playwright, took up the position, and updated Callimachus' Pinakes. The last recorded
librarian was Aristarchus of Samothrace, the astronomer, who took up the position in 180 B.C.E. and was driven out during dynastic struggles between
two Ptolemies. While the library and Museum persisted for many centuries afterwards, from that time onward scholars are simply recorded as
Alexandrian, and no Librarians are mentioned by name.