A library is a repository for recorded information. The concept of a library has evolved but has existed in some form for thousands of years. The ability to record information in a format more permanent than oral tradition added another dimension to human communication time. Information that has been transcribed into a solid, visual format can be accurately remembered over generations. While libraries have physically changed over the course of history, their cultural role has not. Libraries and librarians are responsible for acquiring, maintaining, and providing access to information. They keep business, legal, historical, and literary records of a civilization. Libraries could be considered the memory of a society.
The word library is derived from the Latin liber, meaning “book.” Traditionally, library refers to a collection of books, or a room in which such a collection is kept. In the earliest days of recorded information, however, there was no distinction made between a record room (archive) and a library, so it could be said that the concept of a library has existed for as long as writing.
The Ancient World
The emergence of large, complex civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago necessitated the development of writing to provide the record keeping needed to maintain a stable and orderly society. Ancient civilizations in East Asia indicate similar development, with collections of official records dating to as early as the 12th century BCE in China.
Hieroglyphs emerged from the artistic history of Egypt, starting a tradition of literacy and recorded knowledge. This writing system used pictures to reflect words and ideas. As writing became more widespread and vital in Egyptian society, simplified glyphs were developed, resulting in hieratic (priestly) and demotic (common) scripts. These cursive writing forms were better suited to writing texts on papyrus, greatly increasing the speed in which scribes could write business or literary texts.
In Mesopotamia, the most abundant material for information storage was clay. Cuneiform writing, done with a wedge-shaped tool, was impressed into tablets of damp clay. After the tablets dried, they were permanent. A temple dating to the 3rd millennium BCE in Nippur had several rooms filled with tablets, indicating the existence of a well- developed archive. Large collections of tablets also appear to have been deliberately organized with a catalog listing the contents of the collection.
In East Asia, records were first inscribed on bone, stone, bronze, or tortoise shell and date to the Shang dynasty (approximately 1200 BCE). By the 8th century BCE, less durable materials such as bamboo or wooden slats were used. Lengths of silk appear in the historical record during the 4th century BCE. Paper was invented in China in the 1st century CE, but it would take several centuries for it to completely replace the cumbersome bamboo or the expensive silk. In China, records were often destroyed during war or purged when new rulers assumed the throne, so history would appear to begin during their reigns. The Han dynasty, which succeeded in 206 BCE, ended the repression. They recovered earlier works that were hidden, encouraged writing and record keeping, and developed formal methods to classify information.
In the Western world, libraries had their origins in classical Greece and Rome. Most of the larger Greek temples appear to have had libraries and record rooms. As early as the 6th century BCE, Greek leaders were constructing large public libraries, and a sophisticated book trade existed in Athens by the 5th century BCE. Many large book collections were owned by wealthy citizens. One of the finest private collections of ancient times was owned by Aristotle. His collection was seized and taken to Rome by Sulla in 86 BCE as war booty. From there, copies of his texts became the basis of the greatest library in antiquity at Alexandria.
The Alexandrian library was planned by Ptolemy I in the 3rd century BCE and established by his son Ptolemy II. The founders of this library intended to collect the finest copies available of every piece of Greek literature and arrange it systematically to facilitate research. It was staffed by many famous Greek writers and scholars and was estimated to contain 700,000 scrolls of parchment and the first use of vellum.
Private libraries were common in classical Rome. It was considered fashionable to have a library in your home. Interestingly, imperial Rome is known for military skill, not intellectual life, but Romans revered books and transported hundreds of collections virtually intact back to Rome when plundering foreign lands. Most of the captured libraries were incorporated into the private libraries in officers’ homes. Eventually, Romans decided that placing these collections in large public buildings would display the glory of Rome. Julius Caesar is credited with actually planning the first public library facility, but he died before the plans could be completed. Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, and many later emperors created libraries throughout the city.
The Middle Ages
Books were thought to be essential to spiritual life. As monastic communities were established in the 2nd century, monasteries included a library for reading and study. They also incorporated a scriptorium, a room where manuscripts were copied. Strict rules existed for the use of the books, but at the same time, monasteries often lent materials to other monasteries or to the public. The contents of these libraries included scriptures, religious histories, philosophical writings, and some secular literature. Unknown scribes copied texts repeatedly for generations, preserving cultural transmission through the Middle Ages. Important developments during this time include the codex, or book, and the use of vellum (animal skin) for the pages of books. This new format for recording information was far more durable than papyrus. After universities were founded in the 11th century, students who were also monks returned to their monasteries and deposited their lecture notes in the monastery collection, expanding its contents. The libraries of newly founded universities and monasteries were the main places to study until late in the Middle Ages. Books were very expensive, and only the wealthiest individuals could purchase copies.
Private book collections developed again through the 13th to 15th centuries. The growth of commerce, widespread education and literacy, the new learning of the Renaissance, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg widened the circle of book collectors. Paper also became the preferred writing surface in the 15th century. Paper and the printing press made books far cheaper, faster, and easier to produce for the rapidly growing reading market. Along with a sophisticated book trade, many fine public libraries opened in Italy and throughout Europe.
17th and 18th Centuries
In the 17th and 18th centuries, book collecting everywhere continued to expand. In Europe and North America, many fine private collections were formed that eventually became the core of national and university collections. National libraries today receive one free copy of every book and periodical produced in that country and are maintained with national resources. They attempt to collect and preserve the nation’s literature while keeping an international scope. A new form of library also developed at this time, the circulating library for popular literature. Circulating libraries were operated by booksellers for profit, but they made a large body of literature available to the general public for a nominal cost.
The look and feel of libraries has changed drastically since the 19th century. A leading figure in transforming library service was Antonio Panizzi, an Italian refugee who began working for the British Museum in 1831 and was its principal librarian from 1856 to 1866. He revolutionized library administration and developed a code of rules for catalogers. He also recognized the potential of libraries being open to all for research and reflected this notion in his planning of the British Museum reading room. With the emergence of a large reading public and an enormously expanding stock of books and periodicals, libraries had to expand their organization and storage capacities.
The paradigm for libraries shifted again in the 20th century with the advent of new information technologies. An information explosion after World War II created a need for new methods to store information. Compact movable shelving, microfilming, and remote storage evolved to address this need. Today, the vast quantity of information available through databases and other online resources requires computers and highly qualified professional librarians to help the public navigate through the overwhelming amount of information freely available to everyone. Many types of libraries and services are available today. There are great national libraries, university and research libraries, and public libraries that are generally open to everyone. In addition, there are special libraries founded to meet the research needs of a specific group, school libraries for the students of that institution, and private libraries that reflect the interests of the collector. Archives exist as separate entities today and are generally collections of papers, documents, and photographs preserved for historical reasons.
The Future of Libraries
Libraries have always been driven by the needs of their users. That will not change. Today, most libraries open to the public are fairly neutral in their collections—they have something for everyone. This may have to change given the exponential growth of information available. To be able to manage diverse subjects and formats, while also preserving existing collections with limited funds, is becoming increasingly difficult. Libraries of the future will likely have to specialize and tailor their collections to specific groups of users. Resource sharing between libraries will continue to grow in importance.
While the appearance of libraries and the methods of doing research will continue to change, the main purpose for their existence is unchanging. Libraries and librarians will continue to be responsible for acquiring, maintaining, and providing access to the collective knowledge of a civilization, no matter what form that knowledge may take in the future.
Jill M. Church
See also Evolution, Cultural; Hammurabi, Codex of;
Information; Museums; Rosetta Stone
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