Libraries developed soon after the development of writing itself. Although the first libraries were primarily storehouses of government records, they quickly expanded to include religious texts, reference materials, and literature. Libraries require not only the support of both religious and secular authorities, but also a literate populace to create and use the items located in them. This entry provides a brief historical overview.
The Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia developed the cuneiform method of writing, with clay tablets as the preferred medium for the creation of written documents. The earliest Mesopotamian libraries date to 2,500 BCE, as in the examples of collections of tablets found near Nippur.
Ancient Greece introduced the first libraries open to public use. The impetus for the creation of public libraries in ancient Greece was the alteration of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides by performers and copyists in the years after their deaths. The Athenian tyrant, Lycurgas, decreed that written copies of the plays would be maintained as public records to ensure that the plays were accurately performed and reproduced.
The most famous Greek library of antiquity was located in Egypt. The Alexandrian library was founded as part of the Museum, a temple that served as a home for intellectuals who were recruited by the Ptolemies. A key function of the Library of Alexandria was the maintenance and reproduction of accurate copies of important Hellenic works. To track the library’s vast collection, the poet Callimachus created a 120-volume catalog, called the Pinakes, which listed the most eminent scholars and their writings in alphabetical order. The Pinakes was not a comprehensive catalog of the entire library but a bibliography of the most important works.
Before the Roman conquest of Macedonia and Greece in the second century BCE, Roman library collections were limited to public records. However, after Paulus Aemilius brought back the library of Perseus of Macedonia as the spoils of war in 168, it became common for Roman generals to seize libraries as spoils. Some, like Cornelius Sulla, provided access to these private libraries to other intellectuals.
Julius Caesar planned the first public library of Rome after visiting the Library of Alexandria, but the creation of this library was delayed by his assassination. Gaius Asinius Pollio established the first public library in Rome around 37 BCE, using the spoils of the Illyrian War. Augustus established additional Roman public libraries starting in 28 BCE with the Palatine Library.
Medieval libraries were much smaller than their predecessors in the Roman world, frequently only a few hundred books stored in trunks or locking wardrobes. These libraries were housed in monasteries and churches for the use of monks and priests. Libraries housed in the great cathedrals of Europe were larger and more diverse, as their purpose was to provide educational material for clergy and laity. An important exception was the libraries created by Emperor Charlemagne. Charlemagne procured texts from Europe and the Byzantine Empire and had them copied for use in monasteries and schools throughout his empire. He also pushed monasteries to create rooms for copying books to distribute to other monasteries.
Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type in Germany radically altered book production by reducing the time and labor required to make books, which translated into greater availability of books and lower costs. These factors led to rapid growth in the size and complexity of library collections in early modern Europe and required the development of more sophisticated methods to organize libraries.
British public libraries developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the form of subscription and circulating libraries. Circulating libraries were established in most British cities by 1800. These libraries rented books to anyone who could pay an extremely small monthly subscription fee and focused on providing leisure reading materials. Subscription libraries developed at the end of the eighteenth century and sold shares to members to fund the purchase of common library collections, which focused on more serious materials than the circulating libraries. A final British precursor to the modern public library was the mercantile institutes, which were established by charities for the use of workers and focused on vocational materials.
Modern public libraries began to appear after the passage of the Public Libraries Act in 1850, which allowed cities to use taxes in order to establish and support public libraries. Despite economic depressions and two world wars in the twentieth century, Great Britain pioneered public library services such as bookmobiles, branch libraries, and service to hospitals.
During the eighteenth century, colonists such as Benjamin Franklin founded society libraries based on the model found in Great Britain. Over time, some society libraries offered nonmembers the option of paying an annual fee, known as a subscription, for the privilege of using the collection.
The drive to establish public libraries grew during the nineteenth century out of the belief that governments had the responsibility to regulate society and that public education was the best means to teach new immigrants how to take part in American democracy. In 1846, the New Hampshire state legislature authorized local governments to use taxes to establish public libraries; it was quickly followed by other states.
Public library use expanded during the twentieth century as new immigrants and unemployed workers tried to gain the skills to find better employment. During the 1950s and 1960s, state officials and the American Library Association worked to secure federal assistance to meet the needs of patrons. Economic difficulties during the 1970s and 1980s led to library closures in some areas. At the same time, library use and the cost of library technology and materials increased through the 1990s. As a result, public libraries have increased their efforts to secure private funding.
- Casson, L. (2001). Libraries in the ancient world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Harris, M. H. (1995). History of libraries in the western world (4th ed.). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
- Lerner, F. (1999). The story of libraries: From the invention of writing to the computer age. New York: Continuum.
- Macleod, R. (Ed.). (2002). The Library of Alexandria: Centre of learning in the ancient world. New York: I. B. Tauris.
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