The Greatest Library in the History of the World: The Library at Alexandria

by Courtney Baron, Head Editor, INALJ Georgia

The Greatest Library in the History of the World: The Library at Alexandria

735208_473575629346260_2122598376_nThe ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E. Alexander was Macedonian, a people decidedly different from the Greeks, yet he aimed to validate himself as the legitimate heir of Greek land and culture. Upon Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided up among the diadochi, the generals who succeeded him, and Ptolemy I Soter gained controlof Egypt. The period that followed Alexander’s death through the rise of the Roman Empire, ca. 323 B.C.E. – 31 B.C.E., is known as the Hellenistic age. The Ptolemies took Alexander’s love of Greek things to heart and strived to create a city rich in intellectual thought, art, and culture. They succeeded with the creation of the Library at Alexandria, perhaps the greatest collection of Greek literature in the world. The library played a crucial role in preserving Greek culture. There were actually two libraries established, one in the Serapeion (a temple dedicated to the god Serapis) and a second library associated with the palace. It is the latter that concerns us. Unfortunately, there is very little archaeological or epigraphical evidence from the library. Most of the evidence is textual and dates from the 1st century B.C.E. or later. This is problematic when trying to piece together information about the library, because Greek authors tend to be nostalgic about Greek and Hellenistic cultural institutions, while Roman authors are often have antipathy toward Hellenistic rule. Despite these setbacks, scholars have enough evidence to develop a general idea of what it was like.

The library was established in order to serve the members of the Mouseion, a temple and institution in honor of the Muses. The Mouseion was home to writers, poets, scientists, etc., who needed a major center of scholarship. The library satisfied that purpose, although it was open to the public. Notable scholars and thinkers of the time, including the mathematician Euclid and the physicist Strabo, flocked to Alexandria. The path to create the greatest collection of the world’s knowledge was a dark one. Alexandria was a popular port city and books were often confiscated from ships Undated illustration of patrons in the Library at Alexandriain the harbor. Copies of precious originals were made so carefully that the copies were often returned to the original owner instead. Galen, writing in the second century C.E., stated that Ptolemy III asked to borrow the original scripts of the famous Athenian playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Athenians demanded a hefty guarantee of 15 talents, which Ptolemy gladly paid, but he decided the keep the originals anyway.

The copies were made on papyrus paper. The library had a system of organization in place. The papyrus rolls had a tab with the author’s name and ethnic (in order to distinguish authors with the same last name). Multiple copies were kept and translations, such as the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), were made. It’s estimated that the library held about 490,000 works total. Perhaps the most well known librarian was the Alexandrian court poet Callimachus. He made a compilation of a bibliographical survey of all Greek literature and divided it into poetry and prose with several subdivisions. He would not have been able to do this without the vast resources of the Library at Alexandria.

Seneca, in de tranquilitate animi, tells us that roughly 40,000 books were burned when Julius Caesar attacked the city in 48 B.C.E. during his pursuit of Pompey. The damage was severe and the library suffered a decline. Under Roman occupation, the nature of the library shifted from intellectual preservation to political aims. The exact end of the library is uncertain, but it probably closed after 270 C.E. when the emperor Aurelius laid waste to Alexandria.

The Library at Alexandria was not the only library of its kind in antiquity, but it was the most famous, and no doubt housed the greatest collection of Greek literature in the ancient world. Its legacy influenced the second most famous ancient library, that of Pergamon controlled by the Attalid Empire in what is now modern-day Turkey, as well as a series of great Roman libraries. It’s a wonderful example of the role libraries play in preserving and kindling cultural heritage.

Recommended Reading:

Primary Sources:
Galen, 2nd c. C.E. – for information about Alexandrian collecting practices.
John Tzetzes, 12th c. C.E. – for information about the library’s foundation.

Secondary Sources:
Casson, L. (2001). Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dix, T.K. (2000). Greece: Library at Alexandria. In P.A. Miller & C. Platter (Eds.), History in Dispute: Classical Antiquity and Classical Studies, Vol 20 (pp. 138-145). Detroit: St. James Press.

El-Abbadi, M. (1990). The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Paris: UNESCO.

El-Abbadi, M., & Fathallah, O. (Eds.). 2008. What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? Leiden: Brill.

Frazer, P.M. (1972). Ptolemaic Alexandria. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
MacLeod, R. (Ed.). (2000). The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World. London: O.B. Tauris Publishers.

Image credit for Undated illustration of patrons in the Library at Alexandria

Image Source:

D. H. Tolzmann, A. Hessel, and R. Peiss. (2001). The Memory of Mankind. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.

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Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 20.5 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay.