Legal deposit in the ancient world

Screenshot 2020-09-10 at 9.20.03.png
This is the earliest surviving fragment of Homer’s Odyssey made in the age of Ptolemaic Egypt (3rd century BC). It measures 19.1 cm in length and it was found in Hibeh (modern-day Tayu-djayet in Egypt) in 1906. It is now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Under legal deposit legislation, copies of publications must be submitted to certain public libraries. In many countries, a copy of every published book has to be sent to the national library, thus ensuring that everything that gets published also gets to be publicly available as well as safeguarded.

It is always easier and a greater benefit to the public weal to set up a law requiring publishers to submit new books to a state library than for private book collectors to build their own private, inaccessible libraries.

The first to have understood this was Ptolemy II, the pharaoh of Hellenistic Egypt (283 – 246 BC) and one of the benefactors of the Library of Alexandria. A patron of scholars and poets such as Aristarchus, Euclid and Theocritus, Ptolemy sponsored the expansion of the Library, both architecturally and in terms of its collections.

In his commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics, the physician Galen recounts how Ptolemy’s love of books prompted him to pass a law requiring all books onboard ships alighting in Alexandria and other Egyptian cities to be brought to him, and from there to be copied into new manuscripts. Galen explains that ‘he gave the new copy to the owners, whose books had been brought to him after they sailed there, but he put the original copy in the library with the inscription “a [book] from the ships”.’, effectively creating the world’s first legal deposit arrangement. It was a win-win situation, especially in an age where the antiquity of a manuscript book underlined its fragility rather than its value, as it is for us. The Egypt-bound book owners would benefit from a free duplication (and, therefore, renewal) service, while the Library of Alexandria would build the largest collection the ancient world had ever seen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: