National Geographic : 1946 Nov
The Library in Timgad THE PUBLIC library with its reading room, where books from the stacks could be consulted, was to be found not only in long cultured Greek cities and in Rome but even in remote towns of North Africa and Gaul. Probably the shelves of a library such as that of Thamugadi (Timgad), in North Africa, held works in Greek as well as in Latin. There is evidence, too, that the books could be borrowed and taken home. At some of the libraries in Rome borrow ing of books is definitely known to have been permitted. Philanthropists of ancient times sometimes presented libraries to their native towns. At Timgad a large block of marble, probably once set as the lintel above the main door way, recorded in the elegant letters of the Latin monumental script the name of the donor by whose last will and testa ment the building was erected. Written long before Europe knew mechanical printing and modern papermaking, the "books" were not bound volumes, but manuscripts on sheets of a material made by pressing and pounding together crisscross thin slices of the pith of a sedge called papyrus. The remarkable thing about papyrus, whence the word paper, was that it could last for 2,000 years in a desert climate. Actually it was rare for both sides of a papyrus sheet to be used, the blank reverse being left comparatively rough and only the side intended for use being scraped and rubbed to a surface smooth enough to take the ink. The ancient ink, whether made from vegetable matter or the jet-black juices of the cuttlefish, must have been of extraordinary quality, for letters written with it remain legible to this day. Pens were made of reed and were trimmed with apenknife. To make a "volume," or roll, sheets were glued end to end into a strip many feetlong. Obviously there was no limit save that of reasonable bulk tothelength that could be put together thus. Livy's History filled 142rolls. To peruse a book, a reader used both hands, unrolling with the right to expose aconvenient portion ofavertical column of text, and rollingup with thelefttheportion read. When the entire roll had been perused, itwould have tobe completely rewound in reverse before another reading. The rolls were thrust into cylindrical cases, "capsules," from which a written label orticket hung with thetitle ofthe volume. The capsules werestored onshelves. Greek and Latin books were stored separately, butotherwise wehave little notion of how they were arranged and catalogued. Memoranda, notes, and letters notintended tobepreserved could be written on wax slates with apointed metal scratcher, or stylus. A pair of suchslates, hinged face toface, tied with string, with a lump ofwax orclay daubed over theknot and the imprint of a seal ring pressed upon it,would make a letter which could be sent bymessenger. The recipient could scrape the wax smooth andreply onthesame slate. Books made of sheets ofvellum bound together into tomes were known in antiquity, but didnotreally become popular enough to challenge the papyrus rolls until thevery end of imperial times. Medieval preference was overwhelmingly in favor of such books ("codices") and almost abandoned the use of papyrus until contact with China brought inpaper made from mulberry barkand other materials.