Books Again

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I recently returned from a cruise in the southern Mediterranean, one of those college alumni offerings that was both relaxing and educational. This one was called “Ancient Civilizations,” and it was ten-days of ancient, medieval and modern sites and sights.  We began in Piraeus, went to Alexandria,  Jerusalem, Haifa and the Galilee, Cyprus, Rhodes, Kuşa’dasi/Ephesus and finally to Istanbul, each of which provided an aspect of this part of the world in which people from all of those places have mingled and influenced each other for millennia. It was a voyage of tantalizing tastes of a variety of cultures in beautiful settings.  I came back hungry to return.

People ask what my favorite thing was. There wasn’t one.  Each experience was too different from the others.  I am drawn to architecture, however, and there were a number of graceful buildings to be seen. Among the standouts were the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, built to hold 12,000 scrolls, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), the New Library of Alexandria, with plans to hold eight million volumes.

A masterpiece of contemporary architecture with subtle references to tradition – the solar disk suggested by its sea-facing side and the colossus of Ptolemy II near its entrance, for example, the BA sits just above the old harbor close to the location of the original library, that wonder of the ancient world, that, according to Plutarch, was burnt down by accident by Julius Caesar.  It happened when he set fire to his own fleet in a tactical maneuver, and the fire spread to the library just up the hill. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina continues in the spirit of its predecessor of nearly 2000 years. It considers itself a research center as did the ancient Royal Library, which had rooms to study astronomy, anatomy and a zoo of exotic animals.  Great thinkers including Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Hipparchus, Aedesia, Pappus, Aristarchus of Samos, Hypatia and Saint Catherine worked and studied within its precincts, founding and enriching the fields of mathematics, engineering, physiology, geography and medicine among others.  Another imitation of the ancient library’s practices is the BA’s project of digitizing information. There is a legend that Ptolemy III Euergetes required all visitors to Alexandria to relinquish their books and any other reading materials. These were then given to his scribes, the “scanners” of the third century BCE, who copied them quickly and accurately, then returned them to their owners.

The original library contained a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens, walks, lecture rooms, a place to eat, stacks and acquisitions and cataloguing departments.  The new BA is similar.  Its reading room, the world’s largest, is on seven different levels.  From the Callimachus Balcony, the visitor looks out on descending terraces with elegant, slim pillars supporting a roof of light.  Each terrace has its own specialty; for instance, the bottom terrace houses the reference collection, periodicals, newspapers and monographs. It also has the Entrepreneur Corner where information is available for Alexandria’s business community. As one ascends, there are computer stations, book cases, and an assortment of subjects and uses that include the Library Learning Center, a computer lab where students become proficient in information technology, a special arts and multimedia section and rare books.  Just as the original library had halls for dining, the BA has a two story cafeteria. There are exhibition galleries and museums within the building as well.  I went to the Manuscript Museum and the Antiquities Museum, and saw a small exhibition of folk costume in one of the galleries. On one of the top tiers of the reading room is a charming display of printing presses among the study tables.  There is also the Taha Hussein Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Young readers and children have their own rooms as well.

Its predecessor once held the largest collection in the world. Five hundred thousand scrolls was the goal set for the library’s collection by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and if indeed Marc Antony did present the library with 200,000 scrolls during his time in Alexandria (the donation may have been Roman propaganda), the collection must have been pretty impressive. Today the library is still in the process of filling its shelves, relying on donations to help it purchase the collection.  Estimates are that this may take 80 years.  Thanks to a contribution of 500,000 books from the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the BA has the largest collection of books in French in the Arab world, and is the most important French library in Africa. Its other two main languages are Arabic and English.

The complex, centered by a beautiful plaza filled with olive trees, symbols of peace, includes a conference center, a planetarium, the Aexploratorium and a History of Science Museum. The library, a nearly circular structure, is surrounded by a manmade water course and ponds and looks over the old harbor of Alexandria. One exterior wall features characters from 120 different languages.

First envisioned in 1974 by a committee from Alexandria University, it gained early support from the Egyptian government and UNESCO. The funding campaign was begun in 1990 and a competition was held to find the architects for the project.  The winner, Oslo’s Snøhetta architectural firm worked with Cairo’s Hamza Associates to build the library. It opened in 2002, almost 2000 years after the great Royal Library burned.

I’ve always loved libraries, especially the ones that smell like books. They are as important as cathedrals and castles in my wanderings. It’s comforting to realize that they’ve been cherished by many from ancient times until the present.   In recent travels, I’ve visited the central libraries in Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe and Honolulu. I was not on a pilgrimage.  They were just there, and I walked in. Each made me feel at home.  Soon San Diego’s new domed library will be ready to open, but until then, I have daily access to a lovely, intimate and well-supplied library right here at the Museum — the Frances Hamilton White Art Reference Library.  Our library is not built on the same scale as those I’ve been telling you about, but it’s a satisfying space that specializes in books and other publications that support the Museum’s mission. Like the others, it is arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System, but books are grouped in an order that is completely useful for the kinds of information we need at the Museum.  On the east wall are books about materials and techniques — sections devoted to textile making and embellishment, dolls and toys and wooden objects. The west wall is organized geographically, and there you’ll find books about arts of daily use in Africa, Asia and Europe. There are so many of these now that the Americas along with Australia, New Zealand and Oceania have moved to the north wall.  There is a reference section that contains dictionaries in several languages, Palau among them and atlases and other useful volumes such as Diamond Dictionary, China Mending and Restoration and Fairbairn’s Book of Crests.  As exhibitions are mounted, books that pertain to their themes are pulled for staff members, docents, members and scholars to use as guides to understanding each new exhibition.

With the recent donation of the contents of the library of The Bead Museum in Glendale, Arizona including some interesting rare books, the library contains about 10,000 volumes.  Volunteers – always welcome – are busy cataloguing this collection as well as sorting, organizing, describing and digitizing the Museum’s more than 34 years of archives with plans to make some of the archive available to the public in the future. Kristi Ehrig-Burgess, the library and digitization manager has created a helpful online catalog of selected titles from the Museum’s collection that can be found at Mingei International’s website as can most of the Mingei International’s videos. Kristi encourages members and scholars to visit the library or to call or email her at with their questions.

Another small, yet charming, set of reading materials in a most unusual setting has arrived for a short visit.  Books made of rice paper, bound in seaweed and a basket of rice paper parchment rolls are found in the Royal Room of Camelot, Melody Morse’s entry in the Epilepsy Foundation’s Gingerbread City Gala 2012, Myths and Legends that was held at the end of November.  Its companion is a gingerbread edifice, Poseidon’s Palace by Ellie Wilson. The palace is surrounded by colorful coral, fish and mermaids fashioned from chocolate. These two prize winners are on display during December Nights, Friday and Saturday, December 7 and 8, from 5 until 9 pm.