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The library at Alexandria: from 300 BC

The library at Alexandria aims to be a comprehensive collection of Greek literature, written on papyrus. There is a policy of seeking out texts of all available works, to be collated and edited by a team of scholars.

Each papyrus, when closed and shelved, is a cylinder - on average some 25cm long and about 3cm in diameter. Larger than this becomes inconvenient to handle. But a scroll of this size may stretch up to 10 metres when unrolled, and the amount of material it will contain can be as much as a New Testament gospel.

At its peak the library has perhaps half a million scrolls, many of them different versions of the same text. Such a mass of material demands the beginning of the science of information retrieval. In about 260 BC Callimachus, a distinguished author, compiles a catalogue of the library which itself runs to 120 scrolls.

The library at Alexandria lasts five centuries, until the great collection is reduced and finally destroyed in civil war and other disasters in the 3rd century AD.