The History of Libraries Through the Ages

Library by Boltron on Flickr

Library by Boltron on Flickr

Libraries have a reputation for being oh-so-boring places you visit only when you absolutely must. But on the contrary, these all-inclusive establishments are your friendly neighborhood cultural catchalls, holding the historical relics, documented research and readings of communities, governments and entire societies, dating back decades and sometimes even centuries or millenniums.

There is no doubt that libraries have had an impressively direct and significant impact on societies all over the world for thousands of years. Creating and providing an outlet for technological advancements, introducing and nurturing cultural artifacts, supporting the rise of various religions and helping to maintain a sense of historical structure, they have managed to help communities survive and thrive via numerous artistic outlets.

They’ve contributed immensely to our modern culture. But how did they get their start?

The Beginning: Archeological Findings of Ancient Libraries

Since the beginning of time, there has been a need to preserve artifacts in some fashion for later appreciation by new generations. As a result, it seems there has always been some form of a library in existence.

Archives of Egyptian historical records and literature.

Archeologists have spent centuries pulling together bits and pieces of history about our past. As a result of their research, they have managed to find what seems to be proof of the first libraries located in ancient Egypt.

Most of their conclusions were drawn from the information gathered by previous thinkers, philosophers and scientists who visited Egypt and were able to gather proof of documents found throughout the country in safe places equipped to store the documents.

In the paper, The Library in Ancient Egypt, Cairo University professor Dr. Abdel-Halim Nureddin explained that these safe places could only be described as libraries in that they required “classification, presentation and staff (librarians and many others)” just as modern libraries do today.

Clay tablets and papyrus plants contributed to first libraries.

clay tablet

Of course, in order to have a library, something must fill it up. In the ancient days of Egypt, the items took the form of clay tablets and papyrus plants.

As noted by Nureddin, researchers have learned that clay tablets were used as the primary medium for communication for many years. Inscriptions were carved into the wet clay surface using a stylus as the writing tool. Once dry, they took the form that archeologists have managed to dig up for centuries.

The inscribed clay tablets were thought to be used nearly 5,000 years ago, as early as 3020 B.C., for the use of theological matters, historical records and legends. However, as the centuries passed, a transition was made from clay tablets to papyrus plants that were used in a similar fashion as modern-day paper.

The Egyptians used the papyrus plant to create scrolls (or rolls) because they were light, durable, strong, thin and much easier to carry than the clay tablets. The papyrus plant was so popular that it was used centuries later in places like the holy city of Nippur, a part of the ancient Near East, as a way to create lists of Sumerian works of literature (myths, hymns, laments).

papyrus

In fact, the concept was able to carry over into modern times serving as the direct reason that we use trees for paper (the English word for papyrus) today.

The ancient library classification system.

With many societies placing so many of their ideas into written form, it was only a matter of time that the works would require some sort of organization. Research has shown that as early as 700 B.C., the first library classification system may have existed in Nineveh to accommodate their standardized writing.

However, these discoveries weren’t made until thousands of years later, in 1850, when workmen of Sir Austen Henry Layard at Nineveh found clay tablets in the ruins of the palace of Assur-bani-pal that had fallen from shelves.

What was interesting about the tablets was that they had been arranged in order. Researchers examining the ancient method determined that the people of Nineveh had formed what would be considered a library. In fact, some believe that the great library of Nineveh owed its existence to Assur-bani-pal.

Library of Ashurbanipal

A photograph of Tablet 4 of Gilgamesh, 669-627 B.C.

Over time, more than 30,000 clay tablets were discovered from the ruins in Nineveh and formed a collection called the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal (the collection is now found in the British Museum). It showcases the amazing Mesopotamian works and how they were organized into a system.

Classical Greek and Ancient Roman Libraries Step It up a Notch

The early attempts at libraries were indeed impressive, but as the centuries passed, new societies found their own ways of giving order to the writings and artistic efforts of their time – and in doing so were able to improve on the institution. Two of the first to make this effort were the Greeks and Romans.

Poets and philosophers received recognition.

In Greece around the 5th century B.C., private libraries were made up of non-fiction and fiction books, as opposed to societal or institutional records found in the societies prior. The works of poets like Euripides and philosophers like Aristotle were read and appreciated in classical Greek homes.

The next level of classification in Greece.

By around 296 B.C., another form of library organization became popularized. What’s interesting about this system, however, is that it was similar to the cataloging system found in the United States Library of Congress, in that it is alphabetical. The classification system was designed by Greek poet and scholar Callimachus and was used continuously during third century B.C. and throughout the Roman Empire.

Romans expanded to community-centered libraries.

Because the highly-advanced Greek culture had a heavy influence on the Ancient Roman culture, it was only a matter of time before works of the time were found in the homes of Roman citizens.

In the paper, Ancient Libraries of Greece and Rome by Cornell University librarian, Jacalyn C. Spoon, she explained that having books in the home was so important that it was highlighted by the family paintings people displayed. “The importance of literacy and books to the Roman people is clear in the portraits created,” she wrote.

Roman Portrait

Ancient Roman fresco woman holding a stylus and book

However, the Romans not only showcased the importance of books in the home, they expanded the concept by creating their version of the community-center (or public) libraries. Even Julius Caesar hoped to build a public library in Rome; however, he was assassinated before he was able to do so.

A significant contributor to the ancient Roman library was the wealth of the people of Rome. Learning was a big deal and something that was celebrated, which made citizens – especially the “learned men” –eager to share their knowledge.

After Caesar was murdered, numerous libraries were built, including two founded by Emperor Augustus and others by his successor Tiberius. Many libraries used the classification system derived from Greece and allow citizens to read or copy scrolls in both Latin and Greek.

Switching from scrolls to codex.

As more years progressed, libraries began to shift from the scrolls that had become commonplace to and more suitable codex format. The codex format was developed by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. from wooden writing tablets.

Example of Scroll vs. Codex

Noted difference between the scroll (roll) and codex

Codex was praised for its advantages over scroll because it was compact, sturdy and easy to use in terms of reference. By around 300 A.D., they were just as popular, if not more so, than the scroll. It also should be noted that codex was the first and current format of the Bible.

Early Islamic and Christian Religions Help Expand Libraries

As the years progressed, so did the advancement of libraries. By the 8th and 9th centuries, libraries began to expand through the newly Islamic lands known as the Middle East, as well as North Africa, Sicily and Spain.

Religion was the foundation of Islamic libraries.

Religion was deeply rooted in Islamic libraries. In fact, the first libraries in the Islamic civilization were at mosques and the first book to enter was the Qur’an. However, libraries also played a major role in changing the way people communicated. During this time, Muslims saw a significant shift from oral to written communication.

Islamic libraries grew in size and adopted modern qualities.

As libraries developed, they followed what the Romans started by adding books made mostly of paper and taking on a codex form. But Islamic libraries were able to expand on the concept of the library by increasing in size. The largest library of the period and global region would have been the Sufiya, the oldest mosque library, which was found in Aleppo and housed an estimated 10,000 volumes.

Then around the 8th century, Iranians and Arabs imported the craft of papermaking from China and began utilizing a paper mill in Baghdad. These early advancements enhanced public libraries and eventually helped them expand significantly throughout many Islamic cities by the 9th century.

Chinese Papermaking

Ancient Chinese papermaking, by Cai Lun in 105 AD.

Because the libraries were become so popular and well-occupied, leaders in the Middle East began building complex structures that would offer an impressive scenic quality to the standard structure. Some were surrounded by gorgeous gardens with lakes and waterways, while others added hundreds of rooms to accommodate catalogues, large seating areas and even areas for translators and copyists for the Persian, Greek, Roman and Sanskrit non-fiction and other literature.

Medieval Christian libraries emerged while others fell away.

Centuries after citizens put so much hard work into building and nurturing them, most Islamic libraries were destroyed by Mongolian invasions. Unfortunately, many Roman libraries suffered a similar fate due to a cutback in funds dedicated to literacy.

However, while the challenges of the time were wreaking havoc on some libraries, others, in particular, libraries that were associated with Medieval Christian monasteries, were beginning to crop up in scattered places through the Christian Middle East.

Medieval Library

Interior of the medieval library at the University of Leyden, dated 1610

The concept behind the medieval library was to reflect the value in manuscripts and the labor-intensive process that many had to endure to create them. As a result, many librarians took the time to chain books to lecterns, armaria or shelves and only would lend them if they were offered security deposits first.

Chained Library

Chained Library in Wimborne Minster

Lending became acceptable over time.

However, as time marched on, lending books became more popular. This was largely because librarians began to understand that lending a book to someone could mean that it would be copied while in the borrower’s possession. And if the work was copied, eventually the library could have a new title to add to its collection.

Bookpresses developed through early libraries.

Libraries during this time made a number of significant impacts on the printing and publishing world. In the early Christian libraries, bookpresses got their start by building shelves between back-to-back lecterns.

Libraries found themselves undergoing a number of changes to accommodate societal changes. Undoubtedly, there were more to come.

The Onset of Modern European and American Libraries

While libraries had already begun to initiate many changes that we still use today, there were more to come. Many took place with modern European and American libraries.

The marriage of libraries and academia.

One noticeable trend that occurred around the 15th century in central and northern Italy was the development of libraries that were purposefully created by humanists and other enlightened patrons to highlight academia. This represented a gradual shift from the focus on historical artifacts and religion that had been a part of the library’s history.

In Europe, university libraries were closely tied to Monastery libraries, which were most popular from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Their connection was obvious from the similarities in architecture to furniture. Also, their way of collecting and lending books was similar to monasteries in that they chose to keep their working collections under lock and key and make them only available for their residents.

However, by the late 15th century, there was a rapid rise in newly-constructed university library buildings that were separate structures, yet designated as a part of the college. As the years progressed further, colleges like Oxford began petitioning for funding to increase their library space. These desires for growth would help to bring on what was known as the “golden age of libraries.”

Old Bodleian Library - Oxford

Tower of Five Orders, Old Bodleian Library.

The golden age of libraries.

From the years 1600 to 1700, interest in libraries increased significantly. This occurred largely because the quantity of books increased and the costs associated decreased. Even more, there was a renewed interest in classical literature and culture, prompting nations to build great libraries and universities to accommodate and honor them.

During this time, some of the more important libraries were built, including the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Mazarine Library in Paris, the Library of the British Museum and the National Central Library in Italy.

Public Libraries as We Know Them Today

Throughout history, public libraries had always been significant to societies. However, it wasn’t until after the golden age of libraries that they reemerged permanently and became primary establishments in communities around the world.

England’s creation of the modern public library.

In England, one of the first public libraries used by those who were not members of an institution such as a cathedral or college was Francis Trigge Chained Library in Grantham, Lincolnshire in 1598.

The Trigge Library is considered a forerunner of later public library systems. However, it wasn’t until the Public Libraries Act in 1850 was created by the U.K. Parliament and mandated that cities populated with 10,000 or more were asked to pay taxes in support of public libraries.

After the Libraries Act – and the 1870 Public School Law that helped to increase literacy – were enacted, the demand for libraries skyrocketed so that by 1877, more than 75 cities had established free libraries. By 1900, that number had grown to 300.

Public libraries expanded in the U.S.

In the United States, there were tons of examples of libraries that weren’t quite considered public, yet were very significant. For instance, the Library Company of Philadelphia, an independent research library that focused on American society and culture founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, was considered to be the first successful lending library.

The Library Company of Pennsylvania - 1790

The Library Company of Philadelphia’s first building, completed in 1790

In addition, the Boston Athenaeum, which was first founded in Boston in 1807, was known as one of the first social libraries because it encouraged the community (mostly males in the early days) to come together in a social club setting.

By 1876, members of various library communities saw the need to come together as librarians and library administrators to promote the establishment. As a result, the American Library Association (ALA) was created. It is the oldest and largest library association in the world and promotes library education internationally.

New York Public Library

New York Public Library’s Main Reading Room

Only 10 years after the creation of the ALA, the first official U.S. public library was built: the New York Public Library. It was founded in 1886 and established by the estate of New York governor Samuel J. Tilden for $2.4 million. Currently one of the largest library systems in the world next to the United States’ Library of Congress and the British Library, it has grown from one to 89 libraries and has more than 50 million items.

Carnegie’s contributions.

Another major contributor to the public library system worldwide was Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist who was greatly inspired by libraries and books in his youth. He is known for making great strides in his effort to bring forth libraries that were not only open to the public, but free as well.

Carnegie Free Library

Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, Pennsylvania

The first of his Carnegie public library was actually built in 1883 in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland. However, by 1889, he’d built his first United States library in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Throughout the 1890s, he built hundreds of libraries and by 1929, 1689 total libraries in the United States alone had been funded by him with nearly another thousand built in other countries.

The Dewey classification system. In the same year that the American Library Association was established, Melvil Dewey, a founding member, published his decimal based system of classification, which organizes books on library shelves by assigning a number to a subject category.

For example, 100 is assigned to Philosophy & Psychology and within this category are subcategories that also have numbers assigned in increments of 10 (i.e. 110 Metaphysics, 120 Epistemology, 130 Paranormal phenomena, etc.)

The system helps librarians and patrons easily locate books on shelves and is used in 200,000 libraries in at least 135 countries to date. The classification system has undergone over 20 revisions since its first use, however. This is largely due to the changes in technology that have required updates to libraries, specifically in changing their structure to accommodate the digital era.

Card catalogs and digital libraries.

Card catalogs got their start in the 1800s when Charles Folsom, librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, suggested using a series of card, linked together with strings, to help keep order to the collection of books found in libraries.

His idea was taken to the next level, when in 1860 Harvard Librarian John Langdon Sibley proposed placing cards between two wooden blocks. Over the years, the catalogs moved into cabinets and became the standard format for locating books. That is, before the digital library emerged.

Card Catalog

Card Catalog in St Paul Public Library, 1958

Digital libraries were created to accommodate various forms of technology, including print, microform and of course, the Internet. They have also helped to transition libraries from the use of card catalogs as a book searching tool. The new use of technology reflects one of the most proud of the many changes we’ve seen in our globally since the beginning of libraries.

Modern library departments. As libraries evolved, their need for organization evolved as well. For that reason, modern public libraries began developing variations of the following departments to help maintain order:

Circulation: This department handles user accounts, as well as loaning and returning and shelving.

Reference: This section is usually meant for answering user questions or gaining access to specific reference books. Books in this section are usually not able to be checked out of the library.

Stacks maintenance: Those who belong to this department usually have the duty of re-shelving materials that have been returned to the library. Also, this department reads the material in the stacks to ensure that they are being classified correctly.

Collections: This department is in charge of ordering materials and maintaining materials budgets.

Technological services: The technological services department is usually in charge of cataloguing materials, as well as developing and maintaining databases to keep materials in order.

Libraries across the world have come a long way since their start many millenniums ago. Now there are thousands of public libraries worldwide and all of them have managed to adjust tremendously as society has changed, updating cataloging techniques as well as research tools and media options. And amazingly, they still offer us historical artifacts, document the current landscape of our lives and even offer a blueprint to guide us through our futures.

The fate of some libraries has been jeopardies in recent times due to the current recession and earlier financial troubles. However, most have managed to stay afloat by turning to their endowments and investments, as well as accepting contributions from foundations, individual donors and corporations.

Hopefully, these efforts will make help keep the library’s rich history going so that we may enjoy it for many centuries to come.

Comments are closed.