Creating A Public Space: Open Access, Book Theft, and the Epigraphy of Ancient Libraries

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:

βυβλίον οὐκ ἐξε-
νεχθήσεται, ἐπεὶ
ὠμόσαμεν· ἀνυγή-
σεται ἀπὸ ὥρας πρώ-
της μέχρι ἕκτης.

“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]”

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Inscribed rules of the library of Pantaenus. Image via the’s Agora Excavations database. Archive Inv. Agora 2008.20.0059. =SEG 21.500.

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.

Picture of the chained books at the 16th c. Zutphen Library. Images via Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr. Please see them all HERE. More pictures can be found at his Flickr Page.

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.

Lintel dedicatory inscription in Pentelic marble of the Library of Pantaenus. Image via the’s Agora Excavations Database. Inv.I. 848.

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.

Plaque in the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa Main Library. Photo dated to April of 1966. Image via the Iowa Digital Library.

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.

21 October 2012 - Ravenna, Italy 132_2-712014
A mosaic depiction of a book cabinet containing the four canonical gospels. c. 425 CE. Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia in Ravenna. Romans used book tags called sillyba to record authors of works.

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.

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A modified map of the Athenian Agora ca. 150 CE with the library of Pantaenus highlighted. The unmodified map was originally drawn by John Camp in 1976, but is available at the and in Hesperia.

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, HesperiaThe 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.

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Front side of Agora Card I. 848 recording the library dedication. Image via’s Agora Excavations Database. Check it out HERE.

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.

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An early 4th c. CE sarcophagus of a Greek physician getting his read on. Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an Open-Access Institution. 



3 thoughts on “Creating A Public Space: Open Access, Book Theft, and the Epigraphy of Ancient Libraries

Add yours

  1. Thank you for the insight into ancient libraries and the contemporary questions. Our City library of Nuremberg is a nice place, which I never felt like a prison, but rather a space of ideas. It is situated at the former monastery of St. Catherine, and in the cloister, there is the newspaper café – a pubilc space. There are exhibitions of medieval and modern collections. The library works on digital publication as well. These days, the treasures and modern media are frequently used by refugees arriving in town. Greetings.

  2. Some bad experiences of private libraries in there, I see. Mine were mostly positive, which is not the case for some of the “public” manuscript libraries.

    Book scribblers are an evil. Your solution – a PDF that they can scribble into – is as good an answer as I have come across.

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