Wherein the Assyrian library never worried about cuts to the acquisitions budget.
Modern public libraries perform a wide variety of functions: making available books and electronic resources, providing computer and Internet access, offering social services and even using 3D printers to make masks during the pandemic. These are all provided for the well-being of all members of the community.
The library in ancient Nineveh, however, served a patron base of exactly one: the king. This meant that not only did the library never need to worry about budget cuts from higher-ups in the government, but also that the army itself ensured the king never needed to place a hold on a book he was itching to read.
The Not-So-Little Free for Me Library
I’m a big fan of the Little Free Library book-sharing movement. The library of ancient Assyria was the exact opposite of this movement. Not only was it not little—the extant collection includes over 30,000 tablets and writing boards containing an estimated 1,500 titles, including the Epic of Gilgamesh—but it was entirely the property of one individual: king Ashurbanipal, who ruled the empire from 638–631 BCE. One colophon credits the king not only with collecting the tablets and boards, but even with serving as the librarian and organizing them:
The wisdom of Nabu, the signs of writing, as many as have been devised, I wrote on tablets. I arranged (the tablets) in series, I collated (them), and for my royal contemplation and recital I placed them in my palace.
This colophon also emphasizes the entire point of the library: it was for the king’s personal reading and discussion, and therefore was locked away in his palace.
While Ashurbanipal was praised for the wide array of subjects in which he was learned, including medicine and literature, and the majority of the library’s collection consisted of governmental records and correspondence, the king demonstrated a particular interest in documents that would increase his personal power. These works were not military treatises—unlike other monarchs he did not lead his army into battle and instead is depicted in contemporary artwork with a writing stylus tucked into his belt like the Sargonid equivalent of a techbro—but are focused on divination, oracles, omens and other esoterica that could be used to solidify and expand his empire. In other words, Ashurbanipal was a seventh-century Slytherin (with fratricidal civil war substituting for the Sorting Hat).
Round Up All the Citizens…and the Books
A key problem in building an extensive library collection is finding a way to pay for all the books (as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Greeks weren’t above taking a “five-finger discount”). The Assyrians were notorious for removing the peoples and treasures of conquered nations and relocating them to where they would be most advantageous to the empire (for example, the ten tribes of Israel were exiled by Tiglash-Peleser III and Sargon II in the eight-century BCE, and a relief depicts Ashurbanipal himself surveying the captives and booty taken taken from Babylon following the civil war with his brother). This became a primary method for supplying works for Ashurbanipal’s library.
A particularly vivid letter written after the conquest of Babylon describes not only the brutal way the Assyrians acquired new books, but also highlights Ashurbanipal’s interest in the “dark arts:”
Ninurta-gimilli, the son of the governor of Nippur, has completed the series (of celestial omens) and been put in irons. He is assigned to Banunu in the Succession Palace and there is no work for him at present. Kudurru and Kunaya have completed the incantation series Evil Demons. They are at the command of Sasi.
Ashurbanipal did not need to worry about overdue fines for his books, but he was concerned about other people making off with the precious resources. A colophon on one of his tablets therefore warns, “Whoever removes (the tablet), writes his name in place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land.” This is a fate even more grim than the overdue fine looming over “Mad Dog” Binkley in Bloom County.
Image: Library of Ashurbanipal Mesopotamia 1500-539 BC Gallery, British Museum (Source)