The History of the Library
Barbara Krasner-Khait checks out the story of the library.
COLLECTION OF written knowledge in some sort of repository is
a practice as old as civilization itself. About 30,000 clay
tablets found in ancient Mesopotamia date back more than 5,000
years. Archaelogists have uncovered papyrus scrolls from 1300-1200bc
in the ancient Egyptian cities of Amarna and Thebes and thousands
of clay tablets in the palace of King Sennacherib, Assyrian
ruler from 704-681bc, at Nineveh, his capital city. More evidence
turned up with the discovery of the personal collection of Sennacherib's
grandson, King Ashurbanipal.
circa 300bc, the Great Library of Alexandria was the
most famed literary repository of the ancient world.
The name for the repository eventually became the library. Whether
private or public, the library has been founded, built, destroyed
and rebuilt. The library, often championed, has been a survivor
throughout its long history and serves as a testament to the
thirst for knowledge.
Early collections may have surfaced from the Near East, but
the ancient Greeks propelled the idea through their heightened
interest in literacy and intellectual life. Public and private
libraries flourished through a well-established process: authors
wrote on a variety of subjects, scriptoria or copy shops produced
the books, and book dealers sold them. Copying books was an
exacting business and one in high demand, because a book's "trustworthiness"
translated into quality. An Athenian decree called for a repository
of "trustworthy" copies. Though the public library first appeared
by the fourth century bc, the private library was more prevalent.
Aristotle, for instance, amassed a large private collection.
Ancient geographer Strabo said Aristotle "was the first to have
put together a collection of books and to have taught the kings
in Egypt how to arrange a library."
Throughout most of the library's history, the term "book"
referred to works written on papyrus and some parchment
rolls. Beginning in the second century, stacked and bound
wooden boards recorded literature, science, and technical
information. These tablets, called codex, derived from
a centuries-old practice of using wooden writing tablets
for notetaking. These new, durable codices gradually replaced
the fragile rolls. However, rolls continued to be used
for archival-type documents. Parchment eventually replaced
the wooden boards.
The new codex
form impacted book storage. Codices were stored flat on
the shelf and covers protected their leaves. The libraries
had to find ways to house both rolls and codices. New
libraries emerging in the Middle Ages in churches, schools,
and monasteries concerned themselves only with the codex
most modern libraries spend more time and money on collections
than ornamentation, some institutions, such as the Library
of Congress, still aspire to ancient standards of architectural
That library, of course, was the Great Library of Alexandria,
a public library open to those with the proper scholarly and
literary qualifications, founded about 300bc. When Egypt's King
Ptolemy I (305-282bc) asked, "How many scrolls do we have?",
Aristotle's disciple Demetrius of Phalerum was on hand to answer
with the latest count. After all, it was Demetrius who suggested
setting up a universal library to hold copies of all the books
in the world. Ptolemy and his successors wanted to understand
the people under their rule and house Latin, Buddhist, Persian,
Hebrew, and Egyptian works - translated into Greek.
The library's lofty goal was to collect a half-million scrolls
and the Ptolemies took serious steps to accomplish it. Ptolemy
I, for example, composed a letter to all the sovereigns and
governors he knew, imploring them "not to hesitate to send him"
works by authors of every kind.
The Ptolemies engaged in some unorthodox acquisition methods.
Some stories relate that they confiscated any book not already
in the library from passengers arriving in Alexandria. Another
story tells how Ptolemy III (246-222bc) deceived Athenian authorities
when they let him borrow original manuscripts of Aeschylus,
Sophocles and Euripides, using silver as collateral. Ptolemy
kept the originals and sent the copies back, letting the authorities
keep the silver. More traditional means included book purchases
from the markets of Athens, Rhodes and other Mediterranean cities.
Older copies were the favored acquisitions; the older the better,
since they would be considered more trustworthy. At its height,
the library held nearly 750,000 scrolls. There must have been
duplicates since there weren't that many works.
Much of what is now considered to be literary scholarship began
in the Alexandria Library. Funds from the royal treasury paid
the chief librarian and his scholarly staff. Physically, books
were not what we think of today, but rather scrolls, mostly
made of papyrus, but sometimes of leather. They were kept in
pigeonholes with titles written on wooden tags hung from their
Fires and depredations during the Roman period gradually destroyed
the Library. When Julius Caesar occupied Alexandria in 48bc,
Cleopatra urged him to help himself to the books. Obliging,
he shipped tens of thousands to Rome. Marc Antony was rumored
to have given Cleopatra the 200,000-scroll collection of rival
library Pergamum to replace Alexandria's losses.
Thanks to the Great Library, Alexandria assumed its position
as the intellectual capital of the world and provided a model
for other libraries to follow.
Vatican Library is one of the richest manuscript depositories
in the world, with more than 65,000 manuscripts and
more than 900,000 printed volumes. Most works are in
either Latin or Greek.
By the middle of the second century bc, Rome also boasted rich
library resources. Initially comprised of some scattered private
collections, holdings eventually expanded through the spoils
of war. Even Aristotle's famed collection was among the bounty.
Julius Caesar dreamed of establishing a public library in Rome,
but his vision was cut short by his assassination. After Caesar's
death, Asinius Pollio acquired the requisite funds to make the
dream a reality. The library was divided into two sections -
one for Greek and one for Latin, serving as a model for subsequent
Roman libraries. Great statues adorned the walls. Books, typically
acquired through donations by authors and others, as well as
through copying, were placed along the walls and readers consulted
them in the middle of the room. This marked a distinct departure
from the Greek model, where readers could only consult their
books in an atrium away from the rest of the collection.
To serve as director of a library was a great honor. The role
became a stepping stone for the ambitious government servant.
Staffs consisted of slaves and freedmen, who were assigned to
either the Greek or the Latin section. Pages fetched rolls from
the systematically arranged and tagged bookcases and returned
them. They usually transported the rolls in leather or wood
buckets. Scribes made copies to be added to the collection and
recopied damaged rolls, while keeping the catalog up to date.
Libraries were typically open during standard business hours
- sunrise to midday.
Rome had only three public libraries at the time of Augustus'
death in 14ad: Pollio's, one in the Porticus of Octavia, and
Augustus' on the Palatine Hill. When Trajan (98-117ad) dedicated
his monumental column in 112-113, a library (sectioned into
the traditional Greek and Latin chambers) was part of it. Much
of the interior still exists today. The collection there grew
to include some 20,000 volumes. Still, libraries remained the
domain of the learned: teachers, scientists, scholars. Where
were the masses to go? To the imperial baths, of course! At
the baths, men and women, rich and poor could take a bath, meet
with friends, play ball - and read a book. Libraries were added
to the baths until the third century. A catalog of Rome's buildings
from about 350ad enumerated 29 libraries in the city. But in
378, the historian Ammianus Marcellinus commented, "The libraries
are closing forever, like tombs." As the Roman Empire fell,
libraries seemed doomed to extinction.
Transforms the Library
In the early 500s in Egypt, a man named Pachomius established
a monastery and insisted on literacy among his monks. This was
to have a long-lasting effect even after the Roman Empire split
in two about 100 years later. Throughout the rest of the eastern
empire, monastic communities emerged with small and mostly theological
Sparked by the spread of Christianity, the eastern half of the
empire did much to foster the use of libraries. The capital
city of Constantinople had three major libraries: the university
library, the library for the royal family and civil service
and a theological collection.
Even though libraries disappeared in the western empire due
to invasion, lack of funds, and lack of interest, monasticism
gave rise to an explosion of learning. In 529ad, Benedict established
a monastery in Monte Cassino and established a rule by which
the monks would live. Chapter 48 of this rule mandated: "Between
Easter and the calends of October let them apply themselves
to reading from the fourth hour until the sixth hour . . . From
the calends of October to the beginning of Lent, let them apply
themselves to reading until the second hour. During Lent, let
them apply themselves to reading from morning until the end
of the third hour, and in these days of Lent, let them receive
a book apiece from the library and read it straight through.
These books are to be given out at the beginning of Lent."
The Benedictines created libraries and the scriptorium became
sacred. It soon became customary for monasteries to lend to
other monasteries, giving birth to the inter-library loan. Charlemagne,
who owned a robust library in Aachen in the eighth century,
ordered every school to have a scriptorium. The road was well
paved to invite the Renaissance and a new age for libraries.
As Europe emerged from the depths of darkness into the light
of learning, its people began to look to the Greek and Roman
artistic and literary classics for inspiration. Many aristocrats
of the period were dedicated to developing their private libraries.
Cosimo de Medici of the famous Florentine family established
his own collection, which formed the basis of the Laurentian
Library. Also in Italy, the Vatican Library opened in the 1400s.
Accompanying the growth of universities was the development
of university libraries, which, in some cases, were founded
on the basis of a personal donation. For example, Humphrey,
Duke of Gloucester, donated his large collection to Oxford University
in the early 1400s.
Gutenberg's movable type innovation in the 1400s revolutionized
bookmaking. Printed books replaced handwritten manuscripts and
were placed on open shelves.
Radcliffe Camera is part of Oxford's Bodlean Library,
the second largest library in Britain.
Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, libraries surged in popularity.
They grew as universities developed and as national, state-supported
collections began to appear. Many of these became national libraries.
In Britain, Sir Thomas Bodley rebuilt Humphrey's library at
Oxford in the late 1500s. It was renamed the Bodlean Library
and today ranks as the second largest in the country. The largest,
of course, is the British Library, founded in 1759 as part of
the British Museum. The earliest public library in the UK was
associated with London's Guild Hall in 1425. A second opened
in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1580. Neither of these still exists,
but one established in 1653 in Manchester, England does. Once
Parliament passed the Public Library Act in 1850, libraries
began to spread throughout the nation.
In France, the national library in Paris known as Bibliotheque
Nationale de France began in 1367 as the Royal Library of Charles
V. Another significant library, famous for its influence on
library management, is the Mazarine Library, also in Paris.
Cardinal Jules Mazarin, chief minister of France during Louis
XIV's minority, founded it in 1643.
Building on its Roman heritage, Italy boasted several renowned
libraries, including Laurentian Library in Florence, Vatican
Library in Vatican City, Ambrosian Library in Milan and National
Central Library in Florence, based on the collection of Antonio
Magliabechi, a scholar of the 1600s and 1700s.
On the Iberian peninsula, King Philip V established the National
Library of Spain, Madrid in 1711. Portugal's National Library
in Lisbon appeared in 1796.
Three libraries form the national repository for Germany. The
first, the German State Library in Berlin, was founded in 1661
by Friedrich Wilhelm. The second and third followed much later:
the German Library in Leipzig, founded in 1912 and the German
Library in Frankfurt, founded in 1946.
Catherine the Great founded the M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin State
Public Library in St. Petersburg in the late 1700s. Russia's
largest library, the Russian State Library in Moscow (formerly
the Lenin State Library), was founded in 1862.
oldest library in America began with a 400-book donation by
a Massachusetts clergyman, John Harvard, to a new university
that eventually honored him by adopting his name. Another clergyman,
Thomas Bray from England, established the first free lending
libraries in the American Colonies in the late 1600s. Subscription
libraries - where member dues paid for book purchases and borrowing
privileges were free - debuted in the 1700s. In 1731, Ben Franklin
and others founded the first such library, the Library Company
of Philadelphia. The initial collection of the Library of Congress
was in ashes after the British burned it during the War of 1812.
The library bought Thomas Jefferson's vast collection in 1815
and used that as a foundation to rebuild.
with John Harvard's 1638 donation of 260 volumes, the
Harvard Library has grown to become the largest university
library in the US, with more than 10,000,000 volumes.
It wasn't until waves of immigration and the philosophy of free
public education for children that public libraries spread in
the US. The first public library in the country opened in Peterborough,
New Hampshire, in 1833. Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie helped
build more than 1,700 public libraries in the US between 1881
Libraries may have changed over the years - no longer do pages
carry scrolls in wooden buckets - but the need for a repository
of knowledge remains.
This article originally appeared in our October/November