During the reign of the emperor Trajan (ca. 100 CE) an inscription was placed on a marble block for those visiting the public Library of Pantaenus to read. The library was itself built by the son of a diadochos (the name for the head of a philosophical school) called Titus Flavius Pantaenus, and stood south of the Stoa of Attalus in Athens’ Agora. Ever the concern of public libraries, the inscription warned patrons not to steal scrolls and informed them of the hours of operation for the facility:
“No book shall be taken out, since we have sworn it. It will be open from the first hour until the sixth [i.e., dawn to midday]”
In antiquity, a library was called by Greeks a βιβλιοθήκη (Latin bibliotheca). Even then, book thieves were a real problem often addressed with proper signage. As George Houston, the leading historian of ancient libraries (and an emeritus professor who used to help out this wayward classicist in UNC’s epigraphy room) has noted: An inscription from the library at Rhodes also stopped patrons from taking books out: “It shall not be permitted to anyone to take the books out” (tr. Houston 2014: 250). It seems that ancient librarians may have taken an oath not to steal the books, and patrons were likely not allowed to check materials out. As Erik Kwakkel has already talked about, medieval libraries used curses, but also book chains in order to stop book thieves. Library materials were often expensive, rare, and labor intensive to produce, so it makes sense that libraries wished to protect them.
Library patrons also interacted with other inscriptions as they entered, exited, or stood within the library. Outside of the Library of Pantaenus was the patron’s monumental dedicatory inscription, noting his giving of the library structure, its books, the outer porticoes, and the peristyle to Athena Polias (patron deity of Athens), the emperor Trajan, and the city of Athens. The inscription served to remind people of Titus’ piety and his service to the city, but was also a part of the inscribed environment of the library as a whole.
Nowadays, I spend a lot of time at the Main Library at the University of Iowa, particularly in the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio. Like the Library of Pantaenus, library patrons at the UI tend to think more about the books inside of libraries than the inscribed surfaces that help to compartmentalize and organize the space itself. However, the various signs, posted maps, and plaques within these repositories help to shape our experience. Moreover the use of locks, doors, and inscribed warnings can communicate something about the institution itself. I have worked for both public and private institutions with adjoining libraries, and I must say that entering a public library is an altogether different spatial experience from entering a private one–which can often feel like entering a prison.
Much like the metadata categories we use for searching a database (e.g. author, title, publication date), librarians today think a lot about how to situate writing both physically and digitally, in order to facilitate effective searches for documents, maps, photos, and books within a library’s archives. In antiquity, there were book tags called sillyba and scrolls that transmitted book catalogues for patrons to consult for the library’s holdings. There was a science to organizing information even then.
One reason I know about Pantaenus’ library inscriptions at all is due to the archaeological cataloguers and digital librarians at work today. The record keeping, organization, and subsequent digitization of the thousands of dig records housed at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens has made it possible for those interested in the Greek world to reconstruct the Library of Pantaenus for themselves.
In the past few years, the rather ancient philosophy behind the public library has been furthered by the ASCSA’s movement towards an Open-Access policy for their records and for their journal, Hesperia. The initiative was originally spearheaded by punk archaeologist Andrew Reinhard. In 2012, as then- Director of Publications at the ASCSA, he wrote: “We’re providing information on the history and archaeology of the Greek world to as wide an audience as possible. Our content is more readily available to anyone who wants to use it.” In many ways, the movement towards Open-Access (OA for short) in academia is but a digital continuation of a classical tradition.
Although book thieves still exist today, what does and does not constitute a “theft” has changed greatly in the past 25 years, just as the digital age has revised the very idea of what a library is. Oxford’s Bodleian Library now allows you to “check out” a 550 year old copy of the Gutenberg Bible along with a number of other ancient bibles, and the Walters Art Museum allows fair use of thousands of objects in its collection. As University of Iowa professor Rachel Williams put it, “If we are committed to making new knowledge and advancing the act of discovery, we must all commit ourselves to open access and to the possibilities it offers to everyone who has the technological ability to surf the web.” In other words, the days of book chains, oaths, and curses is increasingly drawing to a close for most texts… except for those horrible few who like to highlight directly in the library’s copy of Augustine’s Confessions. They definitely still deserve a proper book curse, along with a free copy of Augustine’s works on PDF.