Let’s say you are Bibliophilos (estranged son of Antibiblios), a learned but not especially eminent scholar. You journey to Alexandria in the reign of one of the more inbred Ptolemies, dreaming of seeing the famous library. Are you admitted? Maybe, at least to one of the branch libraries. But will you be allowed to borrow one of the precious scrolls? Almost certainly not.
First, a bit of background. Classical books, famously, were scrolls (averaging about a foot wide and about twenty feet long). In libraries, these were stacked on shelves, either in storage rooms or – more grandiosely – in niches around the reading rooms. The librarians of Alexandria devised a shelving system by subject and author name, which seems to have been generally adopted. Tags attached to individual scrolls identified the subject and author.
So – could Ioannes Sixpack just mosey on into his local bibliotheca, grab the latest Milesian novel (steamy stuff), and stroll on out? Not unless he happened to be very important. Books, remember, were time-consuming to produce in the classical world. All that papyrus or parchment had to be prepared and cut by hand, and the text painstakingly copied in more or less neat columns with a scratchy, carpal-tunnel-inducing pen.
Although some books were eventually affordable, at least in imperial Rome (if we can believe Martial), there was no ancient equivalent of the mass market paperback. Classical books were not only valuable; they were rare. The works of Homer, Demosthenes, and the great Athenian playwrights might exist in thousands of copies, but copies of most books numbered in the hundreds, or even the dozens. There’s a reason we’ve lost the vast majority of classical literature: most works were always on the cusp of extinction.
Classical librarians, in short, were not generally disposed to lend out scrolls. An inscription from a library beside the Athenian Agora says as much: “No book is to be taken out because we [the members of the association running the library have sworn an oath. (The library) is to be open from the first hour until the sixth”
There is ample evidence for people – professional scholars and non-scholars alike – using libraries, particularly in the Roman period. The second-century antiquarian Aulus Gellius, for example, mentions several times his exploits hunting down obscure books in the great imperial libraries of Rome. In inscriptions scattered across the classical world, likewise, benefactors describe their desire to provide access to books to the people of their native towns.
It seems to have been typical, however, for patrons to consult books in the libraries themselves. Our only evidence for people “checking out” books comes from the Roman imperial era. That pedant Gellius describes how, when he and his very learned friends were sipping ice water together, one of the party “drew out a volume of Aristotle from the library of Tibur – which at that time was in the temple of Hercules and well supplied with books – and brought it to us.” (The man went on to quote the Stagirite on the injuriousness of ice water to one’s constitution.)
And in one of his letters to his tutor Fronto, the young Marcus Aurelius, in a rare playful mood, notes:
“I passed nearly two hours on my couch, reading Cato’s speech On the property of Pulchra, and another in which he impeached a tribune. You tell your slave “go as fast as you can and fetch me those speeches from the libraries of Apollo!” But it is no use, for those volumes, among others, have followed me here!” [Marcus was away from Rome]
So very occasionally, in Roman Italy, it was possible to borrow books – or, more probably, blandish or bribe librarians.
What about the Library of Alexandria? As you may know, there were several libraries: the main one in the palace quarter, another in the precinct of the great Serapeum, and “branches” scattered through the city. The main library was probably accessible only to distinguished scholars and important visitors. The others may have been more user-friendly (we have no clear evidence one way or the other). In any case – we must assume – such an august institution would never have deigned to lend its precious scrolls to such grubby-handed illiterates as the hoi polloi.