It was truly a royal idea, and worthy of the successors of Alexander, that of collecting together all the intellectual riches of the universe, and placing them at the disposal of studious men, who were desirous to use them for their improvement, and the advancement of science.
In order to conceive all the grandeur and munificence of such a creation, it is necessary to recall under what circumstance it was
undertaken, It should be remembered, that manuscripts were then extremely rare, and consequently of an exorbitant price ; that of the greater number of works there were but very few copies, and often one only, so that those who possessed, would not part with them easily, and scarcely allow copies even to be made. All the literary treasure of a family consisted often of one work only, and fewer families yet were in possession of such a heritage. Before the foundation of the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamos, there is no mention made of any considerable collections of books, except those of Pericles and Aristotle. In such a state of things, the inferior classes of society were deprived of all written instruction, and a poor man was able to acquire, except under very extraordinary circumstances, only a very limited degree of knowledge.
Under such circumstances, the establishment of a library, accessible to the public, was an act of philanthropy and liberality, above all eulogy. It was, at the same time, one of those happy creations that immortalize a reign - an epoch, and that concur to consolidate a dynasty ; for the good that they produce, and the gratitude they inspire, extend to the latest posterity. It does not belong to me to refer to the political advantages of which such an institution is the source ; besides, others have acquitted themselves of this task so well, as to leave nothing to desire on that subject.(Notably M. Matter, author of the History of the School at Alexandria, from whom we have borrowed the major part of the details we here furnish on that school)
But, to indicate, in brief, the influence that the foundation of public libraries must have exercised upon ancient civilization, it would be sufficient for me to say that it has been compared, very justly, to that which the art of printing has exerted on modern civilization.
Two of the lieutenants of Alexander appear to have conceived the same project about the same time, so that it is now very difficult to decide, to which of the two belongs the priority. One was Eumenes, governor of Pergamos and Mysia ; the other, Ptolomy Lagos, who had command of Egypt. At the death of the conqueror of Asia, the generals that he placed at the head of the provinces of his vast empire, shook off all dependence on the central government, and endeavored to consolidate their authority in every possible way. The greater number turned their attention entirely to arms, either to maintain their own government, or to invade those of their colleagues. The sovereigns of Alexandria and Pergamos were the only ones, amongst so many captains, who occupied themselves with the interests of commerce and arts, and it was about that time, that they laid the foundation of the first two public libraries. They took hold of the enterprise so actively, that they, and their immediate successors, within about a century, had gathered two hundred thousand volumes for the library at Pergamos, and six to seven hundred thousand for that at Alexandria. This last was divided into two parts, which were called the great and little library. The first contained nearly four hundred thousand volumes, and was located in the quarter named Bruchion, near the Museum and the palaces, and in the neighborhood of the port, where the grain ware houses were situated ; the second was in the temple of Serapis, or Serapium, situated in a distant quarter, nearer the center of the city.
It is not possible, from the above enumeration, to form an exact idea of the accumulated riches in these two great book depots ; for writers differ very much, when on the subject of estimating the volumes, or rolls of the ancients, compared with modern books. Some presume that the six hundred thousand Alexandrian volumes represent two hundred thousand of ours ; others one hundred and twenty thousand ; others ninety thousand. However it may be, literary collections of such magnitude were a wonderful and happy result under the circumstances. The kings of Egypt, and those of Pontus, felt perfectly, what eclat such institutions would throw upon their capitals and their names. At first, their efforts to collect works, excited a praiseworthy rivalry, but this subsequently degenerated into a contemptible jealousy, in some of their successors, which led the sovereigns of Alexandria to interdict the exportation of papyrus, so as to prevent their emulators of Pergamos from being able to make copies of manuscripts. This illiberal prohibition had a contrary effect than was expected, for it led to the invention of the paper of Pergamos, otherwise called parchment, the use of which became general, and displaced, advantageously, the bark of the papyrus. Nevertheless, the institute of Alexandria always preserved a great superiority over that of Pergamos ; it had especially a marked influence on medical studies, and merits, on that account, a particular notice on our part.
From History of Medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.