Interfacing Knowledge: New Paradigms for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

March 8-10 2002, University of California Santa Barbara


From Alexandria to Alexandria: Scholarly interfaces of a universal library


Christian Jacob

Directeur de recherche au CNRS, Paris

(all rights reserved)



Scholarship is an issue of technology, of mental activity and of social interaction. Being a scholar means using tools and physical devices, reading and writing texts, processing data through various intellectual filters and operations, and eventually sharing the results of this work within a professional community and a society.


Interfaces of knowledge could be considered at these various levels, either as technical devices allowing control over data, or as filters used to transform these data according to hypotheses, questions or any intellectual project, or as a way to circulate results among a community and a society.


Interfaces of knowledge are interfaces between the scholar and his or her community, between mental operations and the various physical supports and inscriptions displaying data, between the scholar’s study and the library from which he or she draws texts, knowledge, ideas, material suitable to a given project.


In my paper, I will discuss the meaning and particular forms of « interfaces of knowledge » in the ancient Alexandrian library. In my conclusion, I will argue that today scholars, while using digital libraries, have to solve problems not so different from those of ancient Greek scholars. The solutions, however, rely on a new balance and a new interaction between technology, mental processing and social organization. In such a paradoxical comparison between the ancient universal library and today’s digital libraries, the most striking change lies in the development of external technical devices making possible the mechanization of operations that previously relied on the training of specific intellectual faculties. Cognitive processes and social organizations change according to the innovations in the technologies of writing, of archiving and of information.



At the beginning of the third century BC, the king Ptolemy I founded the Museum of Alexandria, which included a library, in the palace of the new Greek dynasty ruling over Egypt. The library had a symbolic and a political function: mastering cultural memory was a matter of power and of identity. Through the accumulation of books, the new dynasty was entitled to claim the Greek cultural heritage as its own, against other Hellenistic kings. The library was also a research tool and a research field open to a small community of court scholars, poets, grammarians and polymaths. Members of the Museum were among the few users of this extensive collection of books. They were also in charge of its organization and arrangement. Their scholarly work was actually indissociable from the technical and intellectual management of the library. The king was interested mainly in buying as many books as possible in order to create the largest library of the Ancient world. He intended to gather all the books ever written, both in Greek and in foreign languages, to translate some of the latter into Greek, and to concentrate in one single place all the knowledge and literature from the past. Scholars had to control this flood of papyrus book rolls through various interfaces and techniques. Intellectual control was a basic condition for making the library usable as a reference and research tool, that is, for producing new texts from the reading of older ones and for adding knowledge to the corpus of previous scholarship. According to a Byzantine author, Tzetzes, the collection amounted to 490,000 book rolls under the rule of the second king of the dynasty, Ptolemy Philadelphus. The number of literary or scholarly works was obviously much lower, since such works were usually composed of several papyrus rolls or “volumes,” sometimes a hundred rolls or more. Librarians used to count book rolls, not individual works.


The Alexandrian library itself was not a building with a reading room, but rather a storage space for papyrus rolls, consisting of shelves against the walls of storage rooms, perhaps with vertical divisions in order to create compartments devoted to a particular literary genre or scientific field. The library was one of the several scholarly resources of the Museum.


The physical organization of the library provided written culture with a spatial ordering principle, that is, with a map. Being a scholar in the Alexandrian library meant first to master this physical arrangement, that is, to be able to link a place in the storage compartmentalization with a given literary category, or even with a precise text. Such a topographical map of literature and scholarship was indissociable from the place itself, from the shelves of the library. It was, so to say, the visual and physical memory of the location of books, as any reader in a library can experience it today, at least when he or she has access to the shelves and to the books. But such a map was indissociable from the territory. Actually it was a map at the scale of 1:1.


A different kind of interface appeared when this topographical scheme became an abstract structure, independent from the library, that is, from the territory, and provided users and scholars with a map of written culture regardless of where these individuals were located. Such was the achievement of Callimachus, one of the scholars who worked in the Alexandrian library under the rule of Philadelphus and were responsible for its organization. Callimachus’ work is entitled “Pinakes,” that is “Catalogues” or “Maps.” The Greek word “pinax” means a wooden or a metallic “tablet” where lists, maps and drawings could be written down. The term was also used for any kind of tabular inscription, for lists and catalogues themselves, regardless of their physical support.


The catalogue of the library coincided with the map of culture (paideia). Like any map, this catalogue could be used on its own, independently from the physical space it organized and reflected. Callimachus’ catalogue was the first comprehensive map of ancient Greek literature and scholarship, and was used in Alexandria and elsewhere -- in Rome, for instance, where it provided the literati with an overview of the classical heritage, of genres and subject categories, and of individual works. The catalogue reinforced the feeling of sharing a common heritage of memory,  language, art and knowledge.


As a map of written culture, the catalogue is the first interface allowing a form of control over the thousands of book rolls of the physical library. The catalogue lists works, not physical volumes. It makes possible specific operations, such as the inventory of works belonging to a same literary genre or a same intellectual field; it also permits classification, and thematic bibliographies. Bibliographic descriptors, such as the author’s name, the title, the number of volumes and the first lines of the text, were meta-data allowing the catalogue user to locate texts on the map of literary or scientific fields, to organize a thematic bibliography without physically handling the books. The Alexandrian catalogue gave rise to a scholarly tradition in which bibliography became independent from the library itself and became meaningful on its own.


A bibliography might be defined as a portable library of text descriptors. The library gathers physical books, sometimes several copies of a same work. The bibliography is an ordered list of texts, a tool helping to define literary canons and a scientific corpus. Various biographical and historical data could be linked to the descriptors. Many other libraries, whether large or small, private or public, may use such a bibliography as a reference tool to create and organize their own collections.


This shift from physical books to texts, seen as literary and intellectual units, was part of an overall Alexandrian strategy that emphasized the reading of texts instead of the handling of books. For the king, a universal library needed to gather the largest number of book rolls. For scholars, it had to be structured as a map of ancient literature and scholarship. The catalogue allowed the Alexandrian scholars and the king himself to get an overview of the collection, of its extent and its organization. Through the catalogue, the accumulation of papyrus rolls became an icon of universal culture. The “Pinakes” were not a synoptic catalogue, since they were composed of 120 papyrus rolls. The catalogue was however a miniaturized interface with the library, one that could be handled, copied, browsed and updated independently from the library itself.


Philology was another indicator of this conceptual shift from books to texts. Textual criticism allowed Alexandrian scholars to reconstruct the major literary works of the past through the comparison of the copies archived in the library. The “master copy,” with its critical signs written in the margins between the columns of text, was an interface between the author, the corrector and the readers, making it possible to condense on a single support the various different readings of a same literary work. The annotated copy was simultaneously the archive of the textual tradition and its provisional end. The reader was constructing his or her own text, choosing from the materials inherited from the past, and the criteria were his or her own conceptions of language, style, grammar, and sometimes of “political correctness” (what behaviour would be suitable to a Greek god or goddess?). But such a correction did not delete the original text: it was a “virtual edition” and readers could decide to read the original text as it was written or to take into account the correction suggested in its margin., In Alexandria, the philological edition of a text was an interface between textual scholars, a collaborative device where any new scholar could check the corrections proposed by his or her forerunner and add new ones. It was an interface between the original text and its commentary, on another book roll where the scholar explained his or her critical choices about a given textual locus.


For today’s observers, Alexandrian scholarship displays a major tendency: in order to master the library and its innumerable books, scholars had to create their own portable and miniaturized libraries. They had to imitate, in their daily practice, at their individual and private level, the operations that took place in the state library: collecting, selecting, ordering, and indexing. But scholars were not merely collecting books or texts — they did not need to, while working in the Museum of Alexandria. They collected units of knowledge, information, words and quotations, as basic materials to be used in new texts. Reading and writing were closely linked operations: Alexandrian scholarly writing was first and foremost devoted to archiving and to re-organizing material excerpted from books read and to produce new knowledge from older textual fragments. This meant the processing of textual data through successive steps of rewriting and through various physical supports. In a first step, the scholar could write specific marks on the margin of the column of text, before a relevant locus, in order to retrieve easily these notabilia. In a second step, he had to copy or to summarize these loci on another support, either a wax tablet or a book-roll, following the order in which they appeared in the original text. In a third step, he had to reorganize this material in another book roll according to new ordering principles, such as alphabetic order, chronology, geography, themes or keywords. This third step could imply the merging of notes excerpted from different books. In a fourth step, the compiler could eventually use these ordered reading notes for writing a new treatise, such as an encyclopaedia or a universal history. The difference between the third and the fourth steps was not always very clear. With more or less reorganization and rewriting, the reader produced a new text, made from fragments linked together and ordered according to defined intellectual criteria: it was an hypertext, a written thread through the library. Such a collection could gather rare Greek words, local myths and cults, deeds and witticisms of historical characters, curiosities of nature, or data regarding any branch of human life, from the art of cooking to the famous courtesans of classical Athens.


Writing down and handling reading notes are key steps of the scholarly work in a library, and this Alexandrian practice was the paradigm, and sometimes the historical starting point of a long tradition, through Western and Eastern cultures. Reading notes could be intended for personal use only, or could be “published” and available to other scholars. During the Roman Empire, literati could buy at a very high price such miscellanies, especially if their author was a well-known scholar. Such scholarly compilations reflected the reader’s curiosity, his rare bibliographical findings as well as his or her technique in browsing as many book-rolls as possible. The library was a physical and a cultural space, open to explorations and discoveries. Through excerpting, quoting and copying, readers could get a new control over this space and make unexpected discoveries. According to the Ptolemies’ propaganda, the library was the archive of all what was written down in the ancient Greek world and beyond, a complete record of language, wisdom, literature and knowledge. The library could then be used as a starting point for remote exploration of this vanished culture through a methodical inventory of words and units of information, through their collection and re-organization in new texts, making their retrieval easy or at least easier. Such a process meant a change of focus, from books and literary works, as encompassing frames, to their content, to words, quotations and facts, whose value and meaning were no longer linked to the text they belonged to, but to the collection in which they were re-organized. The collection, as a new discursive and semantic context for words and textual fragments, produced new intellectual effects and new meanings.


Compiled works provided writers with rough material that could be selected, edited and used again in new texts, either as quotations, or as facts to be discussed or as data or exempla with an illustrative function. Such works were interfaces between the library and its scholarly users. They were, so to say, “readers’ digests,” intended to be used by their author and by other readers as well. As a matter of fact, Greek book rolls were not convenient supports for the indexing, the browsing and the easy retrieval of textual loci and data. A scholarly compilation created thematic or lexicographic clusters ad hoc from the textual excerpts. They might be seen asthe results of a full text search through the library database.


When they were involved into the writing of a monograph, ancient scholars had to prepare their documentation, that is, collect information by  reading books. They had to create their own reference tools or to use existing ones. Usually, they used both. A scholarly reader had to be the librarian of his reading notes and to process them through various steps of rewriting, from the original book-roll to the final text he intended to write. Slaves could be used as research assistants at these various steps, as Pliny the Elder testifies.


Such interfaces between a reader and the library took various forms throughout history, such as commonplace books during the Renaissance. The interfaces were the result of an intellectual process of selection, extraction and archiving of useful material: according to scholarly traditions, this material could get an objective status or remain linked to its bibliographical source. Compilation was a form of textual tradition, reorganizing knowledge according to other criteria than the bibliographical attribution of a quotation to an author and to a text. It was also an ongoing work: writing and reorganizing one’s reading notes could be a task for a lifetime.


Such a process was infinite. Written compilations provided a scholar with a reader’s summary appropriate to a given topic. Should his or her curiosity change, the work had to be done again from the beginning. At the end of the Hellenistic period and during the Roman Empire, however, the number of these glossaries, miscellanies and compilations increased dramatically. This could be interpreted as a symptom of an age in which scholars were overwhelmed by a textual overflow, beyond the reading capacities of anyone. Collecting, filtering, reordering, creating new clusters of local coherence were among the primary tasks of scholars. These new clusters could be merged, glossaries were merged to form an hyper-glossary, and so on. The same material could be reorganized according to different key-words or themes.What should have been the preliminary step of a new scholarly project was frequently an end per se. Compilations displayed reading skills, bibliographic expertise, and the ability to dig up and to reorganize information from a shared library. Producing such interfaces was the the obsession of the age of Hellenistic and Roman libraries.


Interfaces as written texts, however, did not bypass the ergonomic limitations of the ancient book format. A papyrus book roll was always more difficult to handle than a codex, and browsing a compilation in twenty volumes or more was as difficult as browsing the original works. Specific navigation tools, however, were used during the Roman Empire, such as tables of contents, summaries, various links between the volumes of a treatise (“we have already seen in volume II that... ”). Alphabetic order or a clear thematic structure could also provide the reader with guidelines on the way to use such encyclopaedia or such lexicon. We do not see, however, a systematic development of textual research tools, as can be observed during the twelth and thirteenth centuries in Europe with the new organization of the codex page’s space. This absence could be explained by sociological and social reasons more than by mere technological factors: ancient scholars were located far away from medieval universities and from their scholastic methods.


The memory of scholars and readers provided them with a more flexible interface than the book-roll. Written collections of reading notes were useful as filtering devices, focusing the reader’s gaze on a collection of selected materials, but the dynamic links between words, quotations and facts worked the best as mental processes: scholars kept the records of their readings in the wax tablets of their mind. And finding the appropriate quotation at a given step of a scholarly talk or of the writing of a book was an issue of mnemonics more than of physical interfaces.


A library was at the same time a collection of books as well as the book that encompassed the reading notes excerpted from one or many other books. The portable library created a new textual frame where the content of other books was merged according to a thematic filter and to a structuring principle. But such a dynamic reorganization of data was frozen in a new text — some of these collections could be composed of one hundred book rolls or more. Only the mental library allowed a continuous and dynamic reorganization of data, according to various thematic or lexical triggers. A striking feature of ancient mnemonics was the possibility of browsing large mental databases of texts in a non-linear way in order to retrieve a particular verse in a poem, or to quote the various authors who dealt with a given topic or used a particular word. Scholars were able to link together quotations from different texts according to a thematic thread or a key-word search. Such a memory could be structured and nourished from the reading notes and from the rote memorization of major literary works, such as epic poetry or drama. Memory was used in retrieving and ordering reference material while writing a new text, but also as a trigger during oral performances and learned conversations. Quoting poetical verses from memory was a shared entertainment for learned Greeks and Romans, especially during banquets and wine parties. In this game, there were average players but also very accomplished virtuosos, who could navigate freely through the library of their mind. A Greek biographer alludes to such skills, when he describes the sophist Longinus as “a living library and a walking museum,” that is, as a human Alexandria. Various sources offer a detailed description of the performances of these “living libraries.” Social interaction was an important part of their activity. Since these scholars selected, stored and organized textual material according to their own professional orientation and curiosity, they interacted through literate and scholarly games where they exchanged quotes, puzzles, questions, pieces of knowledge drawn from their mental libraries. Challenges, surprises and discoveries where possible, despite the fact that these mental libraries relied on the same physical libraries, and sometimes on the same portable libraries too. These scholars were living interfaces of knowledge, and their dialogues and games could be considered as parties of a high quality readers’ club, where the talks and their hypertextual dynamics would draw innovating threads from the individual archives of a shared memory.


A striking feature of ancient mnemonics is that the library, as a compartmentalized storage space, was one of the structuring principles of human memory. One could conceive that scholars, as “living libraries,” just browsed their mental libraries in order to take a mental book-roll from a given place, to unfold it, and to begin reading it. The book-roll and the wax tablets were other structuring principles: one wrote data on the wax  tablets of the mind in order to store them, one read these mental wax tablets in order to retrieve this information. But the books of the mental libraries were not closed textual entities. Memory was trained to create as many links between them as needed, and to browse the mental library content in an hypertextual way that would have been impossible in the physical library. The indexing was a mental process.


What is the meaning today of the ancient Alexandrian library and of the scholarly techniques of its readers? I am not interested in basic analogies or in an evolutionist history, from the papyrus book roll to the digital medium. I am more interested in a conceptual archaeology in which an historical situation could help us in understanding the changes and challenges of our current scholarly practices.


So, what could we learn from ancient Alexandria? A scholarly culture is a way to appropriate the library available at a given time to a given society, with specific tools and interfaces. This culture relies on writing and reading techniques and on intellectual projects. It implies specific mental faculties and produces external devices allowing one to simulate these operations and to perform new ones. Last, it shapes patterns of social interaction and behaviour.


Alexandria is the first historical situation in which a community of scholars had to face a critical overflow of books, a textual archive whose universality was a factor of entropy and saturation. In order to save this memory, one had to conceive and to use various interfaces. These interfaces were like optical lenses or filters. They changed the focus from the accumulation of objects to the mapping of genres and disciplines, from the collection of books to the editing of texts, from the textual frame to the mobility of words, quotations and facts. Glossaries, collections, reading notes, books were not the signs of a lazy compilation and “digest” culture, but were attempts to produce new intellectual results through the artificial and experimental linking of previously unrelated materials. Filtering the library and its books was a step allowing to produce local clusters of knowledge, about food, animals, plants, rivers. It also made it possible to construct new forms of totality, such as glossaries of Greek regional dialects or of literary idioms, universal history and  universal geography and cartography, through the addition and reorganization of partial data regarding the past or the remote space.


Alexandrian scholars had control over the library through the establishing of literary canons and through the mastering of the map of genres and field divisions. Scholars had to be experts in librarianship, either physical libraries, or portable and mental ones. In order to produce knowledge, they relied on various tools and on interfaces, either physical or mental. Scholars, as a community, from the third century BC to the third century AD and onward, shared the same methods and instruments. The accumulation and reorganization of knowledge were possible because the physical interfaces relied on these methods and on shared cultural prerequisite conditions.


Today digital technologies have fundamentally changed the way we deal with libraries, with texts and with the knowledge they encompass. Authentication, validation, selection and relevance are challenging issues for anyone searching the internet on any topic, especially on scholarly topics. Archiving and organizing information, such as digital texts, images and sounds, is at the same time a collective and an individual task. The scholar still has to be a librarian, and his laptop computer is his or her walking library. It is necessary to conceive new tools for a new scholarship, such as database programs, indexing and annotation softwares, web sites for on-line and real-time collaborative work, e-publishing, e-conferences. Such a conception implies a creative dialogue between software designers, librarians and end-users.


The Alexandrian experience, however, reminds us that technology is a tool, not an end in itself, and that it should prove its effectiveness in promoting intellectual creativity and new forms of writing and thinking, in organizing knowledge, as an archive devoted to its own progress. Cognitive efficiency is the key issue for the new Alexandrias of the web, at both the individual and collective levels. The new Alexandrias should reach the same achievements as the old one: devising technical, graphic and mental interfaces allowing the appropriation and the transformation of data, from the universal library to the individual scholar, with his or her own interests, projects, background and social networks.





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L. Canfora, The Vanished Library:  A Wonder of the

Ancient World, translated by Martin Ryle.  Hellenistic Culture and

Society, VII.  Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California

Press, 1990. 


C. Jacob and L. Giard (eds.), Des Alexandries I. Du livre au texte. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2001.


C. Jacob, “The Library and the Book. Forms of Alexandrian Encyclopedism”, Diogenes, 178, Vol. 45/2, Summer 1997, pp. 63-82.


C. Jacob, “Athenaeus the Librarian”, in: Athenaeus and his world. Reading Greek Culture in the Roman Empire, edited by D. Braund and J. Wilkins. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000, pp. 85-110.


C. Jacob, " Ateneo, o il Dedalo delle parole ", introductive essay,  Ateneo, I Deipnosofisti. I dotti a banchetto. Roma: Salerno Editrice,  2001, vol. I, pp. XI-CXVI.


C. Jacob, “Rassembler la mémoire. Réflexions sur l’histoire des bibliothèques”, Diogène, 196, Octobre-décembre 2001, pp. 53-76 (English translation forthcoming).


J.P. Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind. Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity. London/New York: Routledge, 1997.