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Common course: Libraries in the Ancient World


Admission requirements

This course is open to and compulsory for Research Master students in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (all specializations).


All ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilizations had their archives and libraries. Kings, priests, philosophers and private persons organized collections of documents, in order to preserve knowledge and to make it available for contemporary or future readers. Famous ancient libraries include the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, temple libraries in Egypt, the Qumran Library, the library of Alexandria, the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, and the Library of Caesarea. But what were the functions of these libraries? Who founded and who funded them? Who had access to the collections, and how were these buildings organized? In answering these questions we will be comparing the different forms that libraries adopted in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine, Greece and Rome.

We will aim at understanding libraries in their historical contexts, not just as public buildings, but also as archival collections and as religious centres. The connections of ancient libraries with religion, with (the writing of) literature and with (the production of) scholarship will be at the centre of our attention. How did libraries connect past and present, and how did they contribute to the canonization and selection process that has shaped our perspective on ancient texts and literature? Notions and principles of modern archival science will be introduced in order to explore their relevance for ancient libraries. Studying ancient libraries can also cast light on what our own libraries (should) look like. We will therefore compare ancient, early modern and contemporary libraries, archives and databases, and we will discuss their role in academic teaching and scholarship.

All students will become familiar with the history of libraries throughout the ancient world, from Egypt and Mesopotamia to Greece and Rome. For your own oral presentation and paper you will focus on one case study that is related to your specialization. The oral presentation will present the results of your research in an accessible form that will appeal to the students of other tracks, so that all participants of this seminar will be able to develop a truly comparative, intercultural perspective on the fascinating history of libraries in the ancient world.

Course objectives


  • knowledge of the history of libraries and archives in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Syria and Palestine, Greece and Rome;

  • knowledge of different aspects of ancient libraries and their different functions as public buildings, archival collections and religious centres;

  • knowledge of some of the most famous ancient libraries, including the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, and the Villa dei Papiri et Herculaneum;

  • knowledge of some theoretical concepts and paradigms that help us to understand ancient archives and libraries;

Understanding and skills:

  • research skills: formulation of a complex research question, collecting materials, analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions;

  • reading skills: interpreting primary sources on libraries in at least one ancient language (Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite, Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek or Latin);

  • critical assessment of secondary literature according to the standards of academic debate;

  • oral presentation: the student will give a clear and well-argued interpretation, making effective use of a handout or other presentation devices;

  • written presentation: the paper will offer a clear and well-structured presentation of original research;

  • the student must demonstrate his or her grasp of critical issues in recent scholarship, and assess recent scholarly contributions by confronting them with the original source material;

This course aims at active participation and preparation: the student demonstrates involvement in the topic by asking well-informed and constructive questions and making contributions to the collective progress, on the basis of antecedent independent preparation.

The common course contributes to the achievement of learning outcomes 4b and c (to give a clear and well-argued oral presentation for a wider audience; and a written presentation on a research topic in accordance with academic standards) of the Research Master study programme Classics and Ancient Civilizations.


The timetable is available on the Research MA Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours, of which:

  • Lectures (contact hours): 13 x 2 = 26 hours

  • Reading primary texts and secondary literature: 60 hours

  • Preparation oral presentation: 50 hours

  • Preparation of written examination: 50 hours

  • Written paper: 80 hours

  • Exam(s): 2 hours

  • Participation in presentation sessions: 12 hours

Assessment method


  • Written examination on secondary literature (see reading list) and topics discussed in class (30%)

  • Oral presentation (20-25 minutes) (30%)

  • Written Paper (3000-3500 words) (30%)

  • Active participation in class, including one prepared response (10%)


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average.


If the overall mark is unsatisfactory, the student can either revise the paper or retake the written examination (after consultation with the teacher). There is no resit for the oral presentation and participation.

Inspection and feedback

Students will receive written feedback on their oral presentation, written paper and active participation; they will also be invited to review their corrected written examination as soon as they have received their grade.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • distribution of study material

  • distribution of the syllabus and course plan

Reading list

  • L. Casson. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven 2001. (Students should have their own copy of this book.)

  • J. König, K. Oikonomopolou, and G. Woolf (eds.). Ancient Libraries. Cambridge 2013. (Leiden University Library provides online access to this book.)

  • (Guide to Academic Skills)[], Leiden University 2018-2019

An additional reading list, with titles to be found in the Leiden University Library, will be made available before the start of the seminar (via Blackboard). A selection of relevant books will be made available on a special bookshelf at the University Library.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.


Dr. C.C. de Jonge(coordinator)


  • Students are required to attend the classes, to be fully prepared and to join the discussions.

  • Students who fail more than one session without valid reason will be excluded from the course.