Recently I was deeply vexed by the news that a professional author, who of all people should know better, has dismissed the burning of the National Library in Baghdad on the grounds that any book destroyed in the fire could simply be reprinted. There are moments when you find out more about someone’s scholarship and research habits than you’d ever want to know.
Apparently he was unaware that whereas reprinting might serve to reconstitute his high school library, substantial research libraries contain all sorts of odd things, possibly odd old things, some of which may be sole copies. This goes double for major research libraries, which are textual mathom-houses. Moreover, at the time that some of these odd things were catalogued, they may not have been properly recognized for what they were. (This is, incidentally, why I hate having to do research in closed-stack library systems: You have to take the cataloguer’s word on everything.) Anything can turn up there.
Just this year came the news that a big wodge of Tolkien manuscript had turned up in a carton in the Bodleian Library. It hadn’t been lost, exactly; but it hadn’t occurred to anyone who knew about the material’s existence that it might command enough general interest to warrant publication. It has now been published.Then there’s the Didache, a.k.a. “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” an authentic document of the ancient church discovered in 1873 in an old library in Constantinople. It dates from around 70 CE; that is, from when people who knew Jesus personally were still alive:
The Didache (“The Teaching”) is one of the most fascinating yet perplexing documents to emerge from the early church. The title (in ancient times “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”) was known from references to it by Athanasius, Didymus, and Eusebius, and Serapion of Thmuis (4th century) has a quotation from it in his Eucharistic prayer [Richardson] p. 163. But no copy was known until 1873, when Bryennios discovered the codex Hierosolymitanus, which contained the full text of the Didache which he published in 1883. Since then it has been the focus of scholarly attention to an extent quite out of proportion to its modest length. …
The document is composed of two parts: (1) instruction about the “Two Ways”, and (2) a manual of church order and practice. The “Two Ways” material appears to have been intended as a summary of basic instruction about the Christian life to be taught to those who were preparing for baptism and church membership. In its present form it represents the Christianization of a common Jewish form of moral instruction. …
The second part consists of instructions about food, baptism, fasting, prayer, the Eucharist, and various offices and positions of leadership. In addition to providing the earliest evidence of a mode of baptism other than immersion, it records the oldest known Christian Eucharist prayers and a form of the Lord’s Prayer quite similar to that found in the Gospel according to Matthew.
The document closes with a brief apocalyptic section that has much in common with the so-called Synoptic Apocalypse (Mark 13; Matthew 24-25; Luke 24). Which is sort of non-trivial, for those who are interested in such things.Consider also this discussion of ancient imaging technology and the interesting bit of text, found in 1925 by the Catalan historian Pedro Ple1, which turned up in the regional library in Granada:
One of the most regrettable events in history was the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by order of the caliph Omar. It is supposed that this library contained marvelous secrets that, when lost, set back some aspects of human knowledge by centuries. Few things could be rescued. Among them was one related to our subject, which we will transcribe in part below. It was written in the VI century by an Arab doctor and alchemist called Abd-el-Kamir, on whom there is little data. The following is a fragment:Then there’s the new work being done with palimpsests. These are parchments whose original texts were partially erased, then overwritten with another text. New forensic and imaging technology are enabling us to see the first version of the text, sometimes with startling results:When silver is melted, some small lead-colored particles remain at the bottom of the recipient. If these particles are taken and mixed with animal resin, a thick solution will be obtained which must be poured into a recipient where light does not penetrate.
Then, in absolute darkness, a metallic plate can be impregnated with this solution and is then ready upon exposure to the sun’s rays to record the contours of any object that is placed upon it.
The announcement on July 11 of the availability of a tenth century manuscript of texts by the Greek scientist and mathematician Archimedes offers an important opportunity to probe the works of one of the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. The document provides the oldest known source of Archimedes’ writings. … The original work lies hidden beneath an overlay of Greek prayers.The manuscript was first written in the tenth century, copied from an edition of Archimedes’ work then extant in Constantinople. Two hundred years later that text was scraped off, and the parchment was rewritten as a prayer book. Many of Constantinople’s books were burnt when the city was sacked by crusaders in 1204, but this prayer book survived. In the sixteenth century it turned up in the Monastery of St. Saba in what is now Israel. By 1846 it was back in Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it was first identified as a palimpsest. In 1906, a Danish philologist named Johan Ludvig identified the original book as a mathematical text by Archimedes. And now we can read it.
Scientists will be using the latest technology such as digital enhancement and ultra-violet and infra-red filters to discern the original text. Some of the inks used contain particles of iron and will be analyzed using delicate magnetic equipment. An RIT archaeologist, Robert Johnston said that “there is always a residual, traces of what was there. It’s amazing what can come out. Soon, nothing will be secret or hidden.94 …The Palimpsest is the only copy of Archimedes’ important On the Method of Mechanical Theorems and the original Greek version of On Floating Bodies. It also contains copies of Archimedes’ On the Measurement of the Circle, On the Sphere and the Cylinder, On Spiral Lines, and On the Equilibrium of Planes, which had previously been known from much later sources.
What’s in old libraries? You don’t know until you find it. But in order for that to happen, you have to preserve the old holdings and original documents. You also have to keep the library from being burnt. Until last week, the holdings of the National Library in Baghdad were part of the common inheritance of human civilization. We know some of what was lost. We’ll never know all of it.
I’m sure there’ll continue to be some ignorant barbarians who’ll insist that the library was no great loss, and that Donald Rumsfeld isn’t a nyekulturniy lout as well as a profoundly incompetent Secretary of Defense. They’re nothing new in the history of the world. I just wish that so much of the work of civilization didn’t consist of trying to recover from their little sprees.