Friday, May 13, 2005

private and public libraries

…Perhaps Arabic literature is the richest of the ancient literatures. Here, everyone appears to be a lover of books; books are being discussed and every one is interested in books. It appears as if the book was a lover whom one had not met for a long time. Ahmad ibn Isma`il says, “The book is a companion in conversation, and does not trouble you by broaching topics while you are busy, and does not put you to inconvenience by calling on you at the time of your respite [from work] or rest. When you want to see and talk to him you need no elaborate preparations to do so. The book is a friend that does not praise you to the skies, does not deceive you, and a companion that does not grieve you; it is an advisor that protects you from stumbling into error.”

…The libraries were primarily of two kinds – public and private. Public libraries were established by the Caliphs, nobles, scholars and the rich. Separate permanent buildings were built for them, and at times, these libraries were annexed to the large mosques and schools.

As for the independent and permanent library buildings, they comprised several rooms and spacious halls which connected these rooms. These books were kept on shelves fixed along the walls. Every room was set apart for books on a particular discipline. For example, there was a room for books of jurisprudence, a room for books on medicine, and a room for books on literature and so on.

In this building there were separate rooms for those wanting to read in the library [that is, reading rooms] and there were rooms for the scribes who used to copy books. In some library buildings, there was a separate room for music where the students could go to relax and refresh themselves – this is an aspect unique to Islamic Civilization. There were also rooms in which the learned men would gather for academic discussions and studies. All these rooms were furnished with the best and most comfortable furniture. There were separate rooms that served as dining halls for those coming to the library so that they could stay there for prolonged study. For the visitors, there were bedrooms where they could sleep, as reported in connection with the library of `Ali ibn Yahya ibn al-Munajjim who had a magnificent castle in the vicinity of Qafs, close to Baghdad in the village of Karkar. In the castle, he had a large great library known as “treasures of Wisdom,” where people would come from near and far and where they would stay to study the various disciplines. They would be provided with books and all the expenses were paid for by `Ali ibn Yahya himself…

In the public libraries a full-time staff was employed. The head librarian was known as the Khazin al-Maktabah. He would always be a renowned scholar of the time. There were also people who delivered the books to the readers. The translators would be transferring books from other languages into Arabic whilst the scribes would be writing books with their beautiful calligraphy. The binders would be binding books to save them from getting damaged or lost. Over and above these well-known posts, there were people employed for other miscellaneous jobs of a minor nature.

Every big and small library had a catalogue of books with which any book could be taken out easily. This catalogue was prepared according to the disciplines to which the books belonged. Every bookcase would have its own list with all the books present in it. In most libraries the general people could borrow books by depositing the requisite security for them. However, the scholars and others known for their excellence in learning and honor were exempt from this rule and no deposit was demanded of them… be continued...

Dr Mustafa Siba`i
(from Chapter 11: Private and Public Libraries)


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