Libraries, History of

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As places that preserve written evidence, libraries existed as early as the third millennium B. C. E. Those from Mesopotamia featured baked clay tablets with cuneiform writing, and those from Egypt featured papyrus rolls. Great collections from this time are still being uncovered, such as the one at Ebla in modern Syria. They tell mostly of record-keeping agencies. In the centuries just before the birth of Christ, their records also came to be viewed as religious, political, and literary texts, and as this happened, the modern library emerged. It was a place, but it was also a center of the society's thought.

The most impressive library of antiquity was in Egypt at Alexandria, the city named for Aristotle's most famous pupil, Alexander the Great. The Pinakes ("tablets") of Callimachus listed its holdings, and probably also the titles that needed to be found and added to the library, since the collection was meant to grow. This work cites texts (not mere factual information but writings that were seen as permanent, and thus stable in meaning so they could be cited, criticized, and revised) and thus it also records a literary "canon" of the important writings of civilization. The destruction of the Alexandrian library is one of the great tragedies of human history, and the suggested assailants have included Marc Antony, the early Christians, and the early Muslims. It is likely that what precisely happened to that library will never be known because there is no existing evidence. This is ironic considering that evidence is exactly what libraries seek to preserve.

Libraries were sustained through the Middle Ages as writings were preserved by monastic copyists. The original Benedictine scriptorum at Monte Cassino in southern Italy was recreated in Ireland, and eventually throughout much of Europe. A heritage of antiquity thus survived alongside biblical and early Christian writings, as humanist poets and scholars sought out the evidence of a lost antiquity preserved in surviving manuscripts. If the loss of the Alexandrian library symbolically represents the decline of classical civilization, Boccaccio's visit to Monte Cassino symbolically represents the Renaissance of modern Western history.

Rediscovery of the past inspired the passions of many book collectors, including the Medicis, many the Popes, the Duke of Urbino, King Mathias Corvinus of Hungary, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Prominent book collectors of more recent times include John Rylands in England and J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Folger, and Henry L. Huntington in the United States. Less famous, but just as important, were the countless book owners who, as readers, collectors, and patrons, maintained personal libraries. The instinct to build and use collections thus reflects and fosters the personal and social responsibilities of inquiring minds.

Johannes Gutenberg's printing press (ca. 1450) obviously fostered the growth of libraries. The Renaissance may have cherished its books, but it was the later age of reason, enriched by the blessings of the printing press, that cherished its libraries. Francis Bacon's vision of the advancement of learning proposed three mental faculties: reason (naturally the foremost), memory, and imagination—a conception that still underlines most modern library classification schemes. The faculty of reason, celebrated by RenÈ Descartes, also inspired the first great treatise on library method, Gabriel Naudé's Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (1623).

Of the institutional libraries that still survive, few date from before 1600. Among the oldest is the Bodleian Library in Oxford, which was opened in 1602. The library was founded when Sir Thomas Bodley, on learning that Duke Humphrey's private collection had been ignored, boldly vowed to provide funds, along with rules and purposes. As other institutional collections emerged, libraries slowly became a public good. Tall single-room libraries emerged during the seventeenth century and were lavishly decorated in the eighteenth century. However, their aim slowly changed, from places of beauty and personal enrichment to ones that also addressed a social mission. In 1650, John Dury's The Reformed Librarie Keeper introduced the idea of a "publick stock of Learning." A half-century later, Jonathan Swift, in his satire "Battle of the Books" staged a mock battle between the Ancient Books and the Modern Books in the Library of St. James in London. Swift's satirical conflict, which presented scholarly skirmishes over several decades, had profound implications for the search for the best evidence. In simple terms, humanists were seen as readers who used libraries for both primary and secondary sources, while scientists used empirical laboratory work for their primary sources and libraries mostly for secondary sources. The "Battle of the Books" also foreshadowed the decline of the aristocracies, both intellectual and political. Libraries were an homage to tradition, but in the new modern political states that arose out of the democratic revolutions, libraries also reflected the rights and responsibilities of the newly enfranchised citizens. National literatures were canonized through source materials acquired by and maintained in libraries, and national bibliographies were established to record the output of the national press. In democratic societies, libraries were a civic necessity.

Public libraries date from the late sixteenth century, but only in the nineteenth century were they first widely supported by tax funds. The models were the many "social" libraries, joint-stock or subscription institutions that allowed members loan privileges or access to noncirculating ("reference") collections. In his Autobiography (1784), Benjamin Franklin discussed the tribulations and successes of his small reading group that attempted to formalize its activity under the name of the "Junto." Other social libraries were designated to reflect special readerships (e.g., mercantile, apprentices, mechanics), conditions of access (e.g., free, subscription, joint-stock), or ideals (e.g., lyceum, Athenaeum).

Tax support for school libraries began in 1835 in the state of New York; municipal support for public libraries soon followed and led to the landmark founding of the Boston Public Library in the 1850s. In England, the work of Edward Edwards had promoted the Library Act of 1850. Tax-supported public libraries soon began to multiply in the industrial Midlands of England and in the New England region of the United States. Emerging urban centers were prime locations for the new public libraries.

Public libraries thus came to reflect the same democratic instincts that led to a free press. They would serve enlightened citizens who would produce even more enlightened citizens. As printing technology improved during the industrial revolution, more reading matter was available. Thus emerged the classic ideology of libraries: a commitment to public literacy, intellectual freedom, and the dialectic processes that define and enhance the common good of the societies that support the libraries and which they served. It was assumed during the early days that libraries in a liberal society must provide freedom of access to the totality of civilization, in reliable forms. The classic adage about "the right book for the right reader at the right time" incorporates the vision of personal betterment that commits librarians to public service and to the never-ending battle against censorship. Out of the ambiguities arose other bold adage: "Librarians have opinions, libraries do not." Values, contexts, and commitments, such as result from the interaction between the text and the mind of the reader, remain the primary objective of libraries.

The public library movement in the United States faltered before the Civil War but quickly resumed afterward and encouraged the founding of the American Library Association in 1876. National practices for cataloging and classification were high on the agenda of the new profession. Public libraries comfortably shared their concerns with other libraries. Academic libraries, then still mostly symbols of learning and repositories for alumni bequests, slowly grew in support of the new German-style seminars that would in time lead to the modern research university. Scientific libraries soon found their focus in their own organization, the Special Libraries Association (founded in 1901). The public library, however, has remained an ideal, benefiting from the vast patronage of Andrew Carnegie in the early years of the twentieth century. During the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Carnegie's support of public libraries offered hope and enlightenment to a discouraged populace. In the 1950s, federal support for libraries of all kinds began to grow.

Originally, the title of "librarian" had been given out to caretakers of no or dubious distinction. Librarianship began developing into a recognized profession when formal educational programs became available and were required for employment. One of the earliest such programs was founded in 1884 by the brilliant, outrageous, and legendary Melvil Dewey in New York. Dewey's quirky egalitarianism, mixed with the widespread vision of library service, led to the strongly feminine character of libraries that emerged around 1900.

Sanctioned by the values of their mission, libraries continued to grow. Much as manufacturing and sales were separated in the flourishing American corporation, however, so in libraries was work with readers (public service) separated from processing activities (technical service). Concerns for efficiency often confronted concerns for the professional agenda and standards, so when computers and telecommunications systems arrived, libraries were understandably quick to take full advantage of them. Early work in systems design may have been frustrated by the vast holdings and intellectual complexity of libraries, which were always expanding, and by the unpredictable needs of readers, which were always being redefined. Viewed as engines of a sort, however, librarians are clearly exhilarated by the prospects of improving their mechanisms for making their resources available to readers.

See also:Carnegie, Andrew; Cataloging and Knowledge Organization; Dewey, Melvil; Franklin, Benjamin; Gutenberg, Johannes; Librarians; Libraries, Digital; Libraries, Functions and Types of; Libraries, National; Library Associations and Consortia; Library Automation; Printing, History and Methods of.


Harris, Michael H. (1995). A History of Libraries in the Western World, 4th edition. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow.

Hobson, Anthony R. A. (1970). Great Libraries. New York: Putnam.

Jackson, Sidney. (1974). Libraries and Librarianship in the West. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Krummel, D. W. (1999). Fiat lux, fiat latebra: A Celebration of Historical Library Functions. Champaign: University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Occasional Papers 209.

Lerner, Fred. (1998). The Story of Libraries. New York:Continuum.

D. W. Krummel