When I ask my ten-year-old grandson to bike over to the college library down the street and fetch me a book, I am always surprised how quickly he returns. He just punches a few buttons on the library computer, selects an author or title, and right there in front of him, displayed on the monitor, is the location of the book in the library. Half a million books and he gets the right one in seconds, at ten years of age.
Fifty-seven years ago, when I was ten, there was no such thing as a computer. But even then I could go to the town library for my father and, in half an hour or so, find the right book. Inside the front door of our Greco-Roman-looking library was a neat cabinet with lots of little drawers—the card catalogue. All the authors and titles of the library’s books were arranged in alphabetical order, telling how the books were organized on the shelves. There were the sections for literature, history, arts, social sciences, natural sciences and religion. It worked like the computer does for my grandson, though it took me a little longer and I did not have nearly so nice a skinny-tired “racer” to ride home.
People have been working imaginatively for 5,000 years to keep track of, store, and retrieve information they want to remember. Archaeologists digging in Mesopotamia tell us that before 3000 B.C.E. people were keeping track of things they were buying and selling, and of money others owed them, by making marks on clay tablets. Before that they probably made notches on sticks or stones to remember things.
When writing became popular and books or scrolls began to appear in great numbers, the problem became more complicated. So a man named Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–235 B.C.E.) developed the world’s first card catalogue—to organize the books (scrolls) in the immense collection of the ancient library of Alexandria in Egypt.a
The Alexandria Library was established by Ptolemy I Soter in 306 B.C.E., some 25 years after Alexander the Great had founded the city in the Nile Delta. By the time of Jesus, the library held a million volumes. Here, around 300 B.C.E., Euclid wrote his study of plane geometry, Elements; here Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 275–195 B.C.E) accurately measured the Earth’s circumference. The library contained books from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, Greece and North Africa. Here the works of the great classical authors, like Homer and Plato, were first redacted.
Callimachus apparently began working at the library after he turned 20. By the mid-third century B.C.E., the library’s collection grew to more than 500,000 volumes. To keep track of all these books, Callimachus created a library catalogue called the Pinakes—which worked just as well as your Pentium, though it took a little longer.
Although the Pinakes has disappeared, we know a lot about it because ancient authors referred to it. (Perhaps the current excavations at the site of the library will find a copy.) In the 10th century C.E., for example, the great Arab scientist Ibn al-Nadim, a professor at the university in Baghdad, published the al-Fihrist, a survey of all the literature known in Islamic culture at that time; al-Nadim’s work was deliberately organized on the model of Callimachus’s Pinakes.
Callimachus’s ancient catalogue consisted of 120 scrolls in which all the Alexandria Library books (scrolls) were organized by discipline. Its subtitle was The Tablets of the Outstanding Works in the Whole of Greek Civilization. The ancient Greek word pinakes means “tablets” or 007“tiles.” Originally, pinakes probably referred to ceramic tiles that were fixed to the end of the library’s scroll bins, identifying the nature of the works contained in each bin. Before Callimachus developed his card catalogue, such tiles were probably used to keep track of whole classes of scrolls in the library’s various bins. Modern libraries use a similar system to identify books in stacks. Callimachus likely expanded on this tile system in organizing and recording the Alexandria Library collection. He even named his card catalogue, the Pinakes, after that old method.
The subject categories in the library included the humanities, the natural sciences and the social sciences. These subjects were further divided into epic poetry, nondramatic poetry, drama and miscellaneous literature; history, philosophy, oratory and law; and mathematics, medicine and other natural sciences (see Mostafa El-Abbadi, Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, 1990).
A great deal of bibliographical detail was also given for each book. The Pinakes identified each volume by its title and then recorded the name and birthplace of the author, the name of the author’s father and teachers, the place and nature of the author’s education, any nickname or pseudonym applied to the author, a short biography including a list of the author’s works, a comment on their authenticity (that is, whether the works were really written by the author), the first line of the work specified, a brief digest of the volume, the source from which the book was acquired (such as the city where it was bought or the ship from which it was confiscated), the name of the former owner, the name of the scholar who redacted the text, and the total number of lines in each work. An immense task for over half a million books!
Thus Callimachus has been called the “Father of Bibliography.” He is one of the earliest Greek scholars who “fixed the canons of cataloguing, which have been incorporated, more or less, in our Library of Congress, European, and other systems” (E. Parsons, The Alexandria Library, Glory of the Hellenic World, 1952). We have simply used Callimachus’s idea and built upon it.
If you pick up the Encyclopedia Britannica, say, and crack it open, you will quickly sense a correspondence between the way an encyclopedia is organized and the way your library is catalogued. Books and encylopedia entries are organized alphabetically by subject; and each subject is a large rubric, drawing under a single title masses of information that might have been organized differently.
This organization of all learning is called the Encyclopedia of Knowledge, which refers not to a set of books but to relationships we perceive among various kinds of information and ideas. We’ve determined that Herodotus’ histories are more closely related to Homer’s epics than to Euclid’s geometry—and that geometry is closely related to astronomy and (much later) chemistry. We have organized our libraries, encyclopedias and university departments with this in mind. So firmly are these relationships embedded in our thinking that we forget the system had to be invented.
That’s what Callimachus did in Alexandria.
When I ask my ten-year-old grandson to bike over to the college library down the street and fetch me a book, I am always surprised how quickly he returns. He just punches a few buttons on the library computer, selects an author or title, and right there in front of him, displayed on the monitor, is the location of the book in the library. Half a million books and he gets the right one in seconds, at ten years of age. Fifty-seven years ago, when I was ten, there was no such thing as a computer. But even then […]