Libraries: A History

The year is 3000 B.C. The earliest form of writing, called cuneiform, was recently invented in Mesopotamia by a group of people called the Sumerians. Someone says “Hey, we should keep a room stocked with all of these clay tablets that have writings about important events and details of our lives just in case we need them sometime in the future.” Someone else agrees and says “You know what, that’s a great idea.” Boom, the first archival library was born.

What started as a simply necessary and natural entity at the advent of written history, the library slowly evolved into an institution with more cultural significance and prestige. The rise of prominent Greek philosophers catapulted the content of libraries from mere records to include personal thoughts, books, literature, and research. In the 300s B.C., Aristotle built up his private collection and systematically organized it himself to facilitate scientific research.

Copies of Aristotle’s books served as the foundation for the greatest public library of ancient history, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The creators of this library aspired to collect the whole body of Greek literature in the best available copies. Some sources believe the library to have held up to 750,000 scrolls at its height.

“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 form.” 



Private and public libraries continued to grow in popularity as a show of wealth and power. During the 100s B.C., Rome opened its first public library. The library was divided into two sections – one for Greek and one for Latin, serving as a model for future Roman libraries. At this time, the use of “public” libraries was still reserved for intellectuals such as teacher, scientists, and philosophers. A century later, the library trend spread to Constantinople, where several scholarly libraries grew into massive collections. For one thousand years, these libraries housed the works of schools and libraries from Athens, Alexandria, and Asia Minor. Unfortunately, a habit formed in the 9th century of replacing original texts with summaries, which caused some loss of valued works. Otherwise, the majority of Greek classics were preserved and handed down to Western European schools and universities for further study and conservation.

As time moved through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, religion became increasingly important in the upkeep of libraries. Certain monasteries recognized the value of books, and incorporated them into their daily spiritual rituals. With the foundation of many universities during the 11th century, monastic libraries moved from primarily housing scripture and spiritual text to including lecture notes on philosophy, medicine, and other scholarly subjects, which in turn expanded their collections. Similar events happened in Islamic mosques in the Middle East during the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries.

Did you know that it was common practice in the Middle Ages to chain books to the wall/shelves? They were CHAINED to the walls. (Maybe if I did that with my books, I wouldn’t lose as many as I do…) Books were extremely expensive and people weren’t making very much money during those times. The chains were long enough to read the book at the nearest table, but the books could not and did not leave the library. I can only imagine how uninviting those libraries must have felt to read in.


TIMEOUT! Let’s take a moment to ponder the most popular way books were produced up until the 1400s. The author would write the book by hand. Then, in order to get more than one copy of said book, a designated copy-editor would re-write the book BY HAND again. This process happened over and over and over until every person or library that desired having this book (or any other one) had hand cramps from hand-copying all of the books so many times…talk about inefficient.

Enter: The Gutenberg printing press. It was the first movable type printing press of its kind and arguably the most transformative invention of the entire second millennium. This historic machine was invented in the mid-1400s by a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg. He created small individual metal type-blocks that each had one letter, number, or punctuation on it. The blocks were combined to print two pages on one piece of paper at a time. The Gutenberg press replaced both copying by hand and using hand-carved wooden blocks that each held one word on them and had to be hand-rolled with ink and then pressed onto the page one word at a time. Without this invention, countless libraries and books around the world would not be what they are today. Without this invention, literacy and society would not be what they are today. Now that’s something to think about.

As time moved into the 1600-1700s, libraries experienced exponential growth. Countless universities popped up around Europe and the US colonies during this time period, all wanting the best academic collections and libraries for their students. The Harvard University Library was founded in 1638 (!!) with a donation of 400 books from John Harvard himself. Still standing as the oldest academic library in the country, the Harvard University Library system now comprises of over 70 branches and 18 million volumes. In addition, private collections started to amass huge collections, many of which later became the base for several national and state libraries. Subscription libraries (also called circulating libraries), where patrons paid a yearly fee to be a member, were the hot trend starting in the 1700s. Ben Franklin and several of his colleagues founded the first subscription library in the US in 1731, called the Library Company of Philadelphia. It still exists and is now an independent research library that is free and open to the public.

As libraries continued to acquire more and more items, the need for a systematic method of organization became apparent and overwhelming. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), a prominent German librarian of his time, created the idea of a national bibliographic organization that would provide scholars with easy access to all works written on every subject. He experimented with different catalogs, including an alphabetical author catalog, which is now used in most present day libraries.

Not until waves of immigration and the notion that children should be entitled to free public education did public libraries spread throughout the US. The first public library in the country opened in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Aiding the spread of public libraries was the richest man in the world at the time, Andrew Carnegie. He donated $60 million to open and fund over 1,680 libraries across the US. Known as “Carnegie Libraries,” these public spaces offered the poor and discriminated peoples of the US a place to belong and some books to read while belonging. His support for libraries stemmed from a strong belief in their cultural and educational value to society, and that is how they have been viewed since.


Libraries have maintained their status as a staple of society in the present day. They offer resources for anyone and everyone to better themselves through all kinds of interesting and interactive avenues. While the fact that they provide ample reading material is an excellent perk, more importantly, libraries provide a place for the community to engage and belong. As Carnegie once said: “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” From the first archival library of town records, to the Middle Ages of books chained to library walls, to now searching catalogs online from home, the library has always been fountain of knowledge for those who need it.



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