What Was the Library of Alexandria?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2019
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The Library of Alexandria was a legendary research institution founded by Ptolemy I of Egypt. In the modern era, the Library of Alexandria is probably better remembered for its fate: according to numerous historians, the library was sacked and burned, although probably in a series of events, rather than all at once. The precise nature of the Great Library is a topic of some argument among scholars, since little information about the actual library exists, and mythology and legends have obscured the real picture quite thoroughly.

This institution was most certainly established in the third century BCE, with the goal of collecting written materials from numerous surrounding cultures. In fact, two separate libraries held the collections of the Library of Alexandria, which included scrolls from Greece and Rome in addition to Egypt. The Library of Alexandria also had meeting rooms, dormitories, and other spaces for the use of scholars, scribes, and copyists.

Supposedly, the massive collections at the Library of Alexandria were gathered partly through judicious trading, and partly by force. According to legend, all visitors entering Alexandria were obliged to surrender any written material they had for copying at the library, which would have expanded the holdings considerably. No one really knows what the full size of the library's collections was, since no bibliography or catalog exist, but it was believed to be the largest in the ancient world.


The destruction of the Library of Alexandria has been attributed to several people. Supposedly, Julius Caesar accidentally set the library on fire in 48 BCE, but Aurelian and Theophilus around the third century CE have also been credited with the destruction of the library, as has the Muslim Conquest, which occurred in the sixth century. The most probable explanation is that all are responsible, and the library was chipped away by bits and pieces before it finally vanished altogether.

Archaeologists have discovered a site which they posited as the location of the original Library of Alexandria in 2004. The site shed more light on the nature of the facility, indicating that lecture halls and other facilities suggested a high level of information sharing and education going on at the Library. No documents have been positively traced to the Library of Alexandria, although there are plenty of contemporary references to works at the Library which later surfaced in translation or copied form. However, given that some of these references postdate the destruction of the library, it can be tricky to determine which authors were actually housed in the Library of Alexandria's collections.


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Post 2

What was the original name for the Library at Alexandria?

Post 1

Some may not think the original name of the Library is of no great importance however, as a scholar, I would like to know.

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