The "new" British Library -- and "new" Galen
Last night I gave a talk on "ancient libraries" at the AGM of the "Friends of the British Library" -- which I much enjoyed (hope the listeners did too). But there were some ironies about this.
The first was that I have never actually used the new BL. I was a regular reader in the "old" Round Reading Room in the British Museum, pictured above (and, in fact, I carried round my "old" BM library card in my wallet until about 4 years ago when I saw sense). I can't honestly claim an ideological objection to the new library (though some of my mates did -- and fought close to the death for the old regime); I just never quite got round to it, and the longer this went on, the more difficult it proved to fill the form in!
But the second irony was that I was given a subject that lay outside my specialist area; that is, the history of ancient libraries.
There has been a lot of recent work on this (including a very useful collection of essays). And some of this has been kick started by the recent rediscovery (in a Greek library!) of Galen's second-century AD treatise Peri Alupias ("on keeping a stiff upper lip"). It is a discussion of the importance of not giving into grief -- and the prompt for these reflection was the loss of Galen's store room on the Sacred Way in Rome in a devastating fire in 192. The store room contained some silver ware, medical equipment and drugs (Galen was a notable doctor) and a quantity of books. But also destroyed in the fire of 192 were several public imperial libraries, whose loss Galen also discusses (while giving some nice insights into the condition of Roman public libraries: some scrolls were wrongly categorised, environmental conditions (ie damp) were so bad that the scrolls got stuck together and were in practice unopenable.
Anyway in the course of this, I got interested in the whole history of Aristotle's books . . . bequeathed down the generations, coveted by the royal library in Pergamum, eventually taken by Sulla to Italy, and possibly another victim of the fire of 192. It is a great story, and one that reveals the way that particular ancestral collections play a big part in the library culture of the ancient world.
But there was a plus/minus sting in the tail. It was really great to see Anthony Kenny at the talk. But, crikey, he knows a hell of a lot more than me about Aristotle's books. Hoping I got it right.