Ancient library wars!

Libraries were trophies in the ancient world


People generally think of librarians and other library folk as mild-mannered,  maybe even reserved, people that are passionate about books, learning, and information in general. But historically, libraries used to be a source of high competition and conflict!

This article from Atlas Obscura details how several dynasties in the ancient world had a constant rivalry with each other over which kingdom had the best library collection. The biggest competition was between the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum (located in present-day Turkey). Kings poured their resources into preserving Greek culture and promoting scholarship, as well as acquiring ancient texts and writings to make their collections more valuable.

Of course, new ideas and interpretations of readings were important to keep libraries current and thriving. The article describes how competition to attract and keep scholars in libraries grew so fierce that the treatment of scholars became similar to today’s world of professional athletes: “Much like how athletes are drafted to rival teams in today’s sports, libraries “attracted scholars by offering one better wages than the other kings.” Sometimes, the kings took it a step further and actually put scholars in prison so they couldn’t take their intellectual pursuits to a different kingdom.

Today’s libraries may not have quite the same level of competition with each other, but they continue to be essential institutions in society, possibly because their value was discovered and preserved to such an extent in the ancient world.