My favorite sub-tour: The Hall of the Book

My favorite subsection of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is this vestibule between the Great Hall and the Main Reading Room, known as the Hall of the Book, named for the series of six John White Alexander murals it contains, called the Evolution of the Book.

The first mural, shown below, depicts pre-historic man stacking stones as a landmark or a memorial. Also called cairns, it was a way of conveying information that predated any comprehendible spoken language or oral tradition.

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The first monument dedicated to George Washington (below, far left) was a somewhat sophisticated stack of stones, but definitely showing the impulse of non-literate prehistoric man to stack stones as a landmark and a memorial. It stands at Washington Memorial State Park in western Maryland. Next to it (center, below) stands the Washington Monument in Baltimore, a much more sophisticated stack of stones with the same intent, and next to it (below, right), the national Washington Monument on the Mall in this city named for Washington, Washington, DC.

The next stage in the Evolution of the Book was the emergence of the oral tradition, spoken language as a means of transferring knowledge and information. The second stage is depicted below in Alexander’s second mural:

Oral Tradition

The Oral Tradition stage was dominated memorization of spoken traditions, usually by a tribe leader or griot. The oral tradition makes its way into religion and philosophy as a pre-literate way to transfer information.

Below left is the Olin Warner first bronze door panel outside the Jefferson Building at the entrance, Oral Tradition, depicting a woman in the center with a small child leaning against her knee, speaking to an American Indian, a Norseman, a prehistoric man, and a shepherd, all representative of groups without a written language. It is also a variant of the Sacred Conversation in European classical art. In the center is the famous School of Athens, depicting learning. Below right is a group of African women sharing stories. Again, the oral tradition at work.

There were inherent flaws and critical limitations in the oral tradition when it came to storage and transmission of knowledge. There was a limit to the quantity of information that could be stored in a human brain via rote memory. Moreover, memories of things may morph and change over time. Finally, human beings die, and their stored memories die with them.

The solution which evolved over time was the development of writing and written records.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics

While the first written records were likely maintained on clay tablets in what is present-day Iraq (Sumeria), the series of murals depicts Egyptian hieroglyphics as the birth of written records. I want to call the inclusion of the couple in this mural an example of Renaissance Humanism, showing a human family unit performing a human task of inscription, but my wife says the wife/girlfriend is there for quality control, to make sure the husband gets it right.

Picture Writing

While the development of writing and written records was a quantum leap beyond the limitations of the oral tradition, still the records existed on the walls of temples and tombs, requiring a lengthy trip to actually see them. The development of picture writing on animal skins depicted above represented a major evolutionary development: animal skins could be rolled up and transported to distant locations. Moreover, records and writing so preserved could be easily replicated to other animal skins and distributed. Eventually, animal skins evolved into vellum, an animal skin product with the texture of paper.

The Manuscript Book

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