Up on Level Three at the British Museum you’ll find the Mesopotamian galeries; a civilisation that gave us writing, a system of counting, and a 30 thousand volume library.
The British Museum is currently involved in a project to recatalogue the library and to make its contents available for modern readers to access. It’s called the Ashurbanipal library Project, as although several kings were involved in its creation, Ashurbanipal seems to have been the keenest.
Until the small display of clay tablets appeared several months ago at the BM I had rather assumed that the library had been mainly composed of financial records and accounts of religious practices.
It turns out to be much more interesting, and a reminder that all that separates us from these people who lived two and half thousand years ago is technology. The ancient Assyrians were very keen on divination, rather in the same way that the Greeks consulted the Oracle at Delphi, so there are numerous reference works to help tell the future.
Ashurbanipal is described as writer, acquirer, chief librarian. He wrote about his own life, and his wife and sister could also read and write. His sister seems the keener scholar, and my favourite fragment shows a note from her to her brother’s wife asking why she isn’t doing her scribing and practising her homework.
It’s a fabulous glimpse into a lost civilisation, and for someone like myself who loves libraries, it has a magic that is nothing to do with divining the future.
In some ways it is ironic that work is going on to preserve the contents of this library while in our own time libraries are being snuffed out; turned into community hubs where books play only a minor part; changing from hushed havens into noisy multi-purpose venues; closing down altogether.
Not far from where I live is the Carnegie Library at Herne Hill. The local council wants to turn it into such a multi-purpose space as described above. Locals are not happy, and they have expressed their unhappiness by occupying the building for ten days. They left this morning, and accompanied by something between one and three thousand people marched to the Tate Library in Brixton, via the Minet Library at Myatts Fields. This latter library was closed by the council at the end of March.
It was a good natured march, and yes, I was on it. There were dogs and children, most of the police who made sure we weren’t smashing up property or about to riot, were smiling and relaxed. An impressive number of windows along the route had signs, many of them home made, protesting against libary closures acoss the borough. The majority of drivers whose journeys were delayed by the march smiled and honked their horns in support. It was uplifting.
Whether it succeeds in making Lambeth Council reverse its decision to close libraries across the borough remains to be seen. So many libraries have slashed their stock. When I was studying for forst the City of London Badge, and later the Blue Badge, I made extensive use of my local library’s stock of books on London, very few of which are there any more.
It would be nice to think our contemporary libraries would receive the respect and appreciation from the authorities as the one belonging to Ashurbanipal.