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What did the Romans ever do for us?

by Craig Martin on 2019-08-09T12:00:00+01:00 in Library, History, English | Comments

Amongst the Romans numerous achievements was the development of public libraries, the spread of knowledge, the preservation of previous cultures and the book format.

Early academic libraries consisted of a storeroom or a shelf in a temple complex. Until the 2nd century BC few works were in Latin, the majority consisted of Greek texts on parchment scrolls. A requested text was read in the grounds, or recited to an audience. This initial predominance of Greek material spread Greek culture; their philosophy, scientific knowledge, political ideas and literature. This resulted in the perception that a library or book ownership conveyed culture and prestige to their owners, both individuals and cities; a view that continues today. 

These academic libraries had limited access. Parchment scrolls where acquired through donations by authors, seized Hellenistic libraries and by borrowing and copying material from other collections.

During the late Republic, it became fashionable for Rome’s wealthy patricians to have private libraries and appear learned. Having your own library was a status symbol (although many owners were illiterate!). Owners would enable others to consult works in their collections.

During the 1st century AD the Romans invented the codex form of a book. Scrolls were cumbersome to use, only displaying a page at a time making reading different sections awkward.  Folding a scroll into pages made reading a document easier. Later folds where cut into sheets enabling both sides to be used and bound together along an edge. Wooden covers encased with leather were added for protection and a title on the spine.

By the early Roman Empire, public libraries existed in major cities. Rome had three, built by emperors as legacies to enhance the prestige of Rome and posthumously portray them as educated and cultured. These were architecturally impressive purpose-built libraries. Contents where spilt into two collections; Latin and Greek. Books were stored along the walls with readers consulting material in the middle of the room. Public libraries were also located in Imperial public baths in major cities across the Empire giving access to many. 

As the Western Roman Empire declined so did Libraries.

Sally Dummer
Library Assistant

Before working at the Library, Sally Dummer was a Roman Archaeologist. She held positions at Newcastle upon Tyne University and Glasgow University. Later she became Keeper of Archaeology in Ipswich and worked on Compass at the British Museum. 


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