Libraries, National

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National libraries collect, preserve, and organize materials that document the intellectual capital of their respective countries. Because the political histories, intellectual and cultural traditions, and attitudes toward libraries vary considerably from country to country, there is much variety among such institutions and only the most general of definitions applies to them all. According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), there are almost 175 institutions serving the functions of national libraries, including those not officially so designated.

Functions of National Libraries

In the context of the history of library and information science, national libraries are a relatively recent phenomenon. There have been collections of books and archives associated with nations for thousands of years, and large-scale libraries in the modern sense have been associated with imperial or other royal courts since the sixteenth century. It is generally agreed that the first national library took form when, in 1795, the French National Convention decreed that the royal collections would become national property and form the basis of a depository of all printed publications in France. During the nineteenth century, more than twenty such national collections were formed worldwide, with that of the British Museum Library serving as the most prominent model. Under Anthony Panizzi, that library aimed to become the most comprehensive collection of English literature in the world and the most comprehensive collection of international literatures outside of their respective countries.

From the earliest years to the present, national libraries have served as research institutions rather than lending institutions, and their users have traditionally been advanced researchers rather than the general public. As the nineteenth century progressed, national libraries because resource centers for the deposit of periodicals, official government publications, works published in the respective countries, works published abroad by nationals of the respective countries, and works about the respective countries regardless of where they were published. A major function of national libraries toward the end of the century and the beginning of the twentieth century became that of bibliographic control and bibliographic cooperation, which necessitated the establishment of standards of bibliographic records. Perhaps more easily visible in national libraries than anywhere was the gradual shift in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from collecting literature to establishing comprehensive records of literature in the sciences, technology, and business. Because of the growing importance of such literatures to wide audiences, national libraries served as coordinating institutions for resource sharing and the cooperative use of bibliographic records.

National libraries have been criticized at various times as being stagnant, unwieldy general collections and excessively specialized collections serving relatively elite populations. Proponents of such collections have argued that the institutions have large and complex roles. Their attempt to preserve their respective cultural traditions, to be exhaustive in several collecting areas, and to be comprehensive in as many others areas as possible constitutes the very nature of modern national libraries.

The various purposes of modern national libraries include the following (with considerable variation from country to country):

  1. collect (acquire, organize, preserve, and provide access to) national literature on all subjects exhaustively,
  2. collect literature on all subjects comprehensively, regardless of national origin,
  3. coordinate bibliographic activities of a country,
  4. provide bibliographic access to the nation's literature in the form of a national bibliography,
  5. coordinate national bibliographic services, including resource sharing and the sharing of bibliographic data,
  6. provide technical and training expertise for libraries and other information agencies nationwide,
  7. lead in international bibliographic cooperation efforts,
  8. educate the general public about a nation's historical, literary, and scientific traditions,
  9. coordinate national policies of intellectual property, especially copyright,
  10. establish a system of legal deposit of published material,
  11. provide research assistance to government entities, and
  12. provide access by means of in-house consultation or lending to researchers as well as the general public.

Being icons of information policy for their respective countries, national libraries are perhaps the most visible manifestations of information distribution that can be observed by the outside world. While national information policies are not promulgated in such institutions, but rather in the countries' legislative bodies, the libraries do play symbolic roles beyond the practical ones of organizing and providing access to information. They demonstrate that the country in question is cognizant of the need to preserve a past, to document the country's intellectual capital, and to provide its citizens with access to information. Some national libraries do indeed house specialized departments that are enabled by legislation to protect intellectual property; the Library of Congress is one prominent example of this. Such departments can be charged with the task of writing the specific details required by broad legislation, and they can play central parts in the development of laws that together constitute a country's information policy.

Library Growth and the Related Problems

Because of the comprehensive nature of many national libraries, they have faced growth problems on a larger scale than have any other library types. The growth of institutions such as the French National library, the British Museum Library, and the Library of Congress was due to the rapid expansion of scientific and other research literature after the eighteenth century and because of the effects of changing printing technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the countries of Europe, North America, and South America had established national libraries, and the major countries of Asia and Africa were to follow in the twentieth century. There are fewer than two hundred national libraries, but it is remarkable that most of them were established in the last 150 years and that they grew so rapidly that they assumed the roles of major cultural institutions throughout the world.

There is no question that printed resources grew at faster than expected rates in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The largest and most comprehensive national libraries have also been leaders in the acquisition and storage of materials in other formats, most notably including microforms from the 1930s onward and digital information from the 1950s onward (but especially since the mid-1980s). The major national libraries of European countries, including especially those of Austria, Romania, Hungary, France, and Great Britain, established centers of documentary reproduction to preserve microformats of materials that faced threats of war and natural disaster. The National Archives of the United States was one of the world's leaders in microphotography for the purpose of preserving the intellectual content of records. The Library of Congress and other major national institutions have alternately struggled to keep up with advances in such information technologies and provided leadership to their respective countries in areas such as documentation (especially large-scale microform projects) and electronic information storage and retrieval. These institutions have become leading storehouses of data in all formats, and they have provided leadership to other libraries for their own microform and electronic preservation efforts and as consultants for digitization programs.

Because national boundaries are impermanent, national libraries attempt to adjust to boundary shifts when they occur. With such circumstances as the reunification of Germany and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, issues beyond those of general collecting strengths and chronology come into sharper focus. Countries with very definite cultural identities desire that their characteristics be reflected in the living cultural monuments called national libraries; however, changes in such large-scale institutions take much time and can be complicated by competing ideologies. The Slovak National Library in Matica slovensk has very old roots in the nationalist movement in the area and is now the major library of the Slovak Republic, as well as its bibliographic center. The National Library of the Czech Republic in Prague has a centuries-old history that closely reflects the history of the Czech people. An economic factor provides yet another disincentive for the formation of comprehensive national collections. New countries, especially those created by wars, are in no financial position to create large retrospective collections, especially when they have many higher priorities. In some cases, as with the National and University Library Ljubljana, the library re-assumed the function of a national library (when Slovenia became an independent country in 1991) to complement its role as the leading academic library. This particular institution has added and dropped functions to coincide with the political changes that occur in Slovenia.

U.S. Institutions

Because national libraries vary considerably in purpose, it is difficult to find one that can represent them all. However, the Library of Congress illustrates many of the collections and services that are found in the national libraries of other countries. Complemented by prominent specialized national institutions, including the National Archives, the National Library of Medicine, and the National Agricultural Library, the Library of Congress is the de facto national library of the United States. It is the largest library in the world and preserves 115 million items on all subjects, in all existing formats, and in several hundred languages. It has offices throughout the world to acquire, process, and organize materials, and it has more than fifteen thousand formal agreements with other libraries and foreign governments to address material purchases, gifts, deposits, and other issues. Its primary stated purpose is to serve the legislature of the United States, but for more than 150 years, it has also served the international research community and the general public.

The Library of Congress maintains some of the world's most prominent materials within some of the most comprehensive subject collections anywhere. These subjects include maps, artwork, music, literature, and scientific materials. While the Library of Congress occupies several large historic buildings, it has evolved to become more than just a physical collection of materials; it provides nationwide services for researchers, publishers, teachers, the blind, and the physically handicapped. It works with other federal libraries and information centers and provides technical consulting. The Library of Congress is well known for its digitization projects, which provide access to library materials of high interest on a variety of topics to readers worldwide via its extensive Internet website. The Library of Congress is home to the Copyright Office of the United States, and like other national libraries, it is the most important national resource center for issues of intellectual property. It has developed an informational and educational presence on the Internet that has been emulated by other national libraries. This relatively recent development has changed the direction of public awareness of the institution and has provided a new means of access to its collections and services for the library world and the general public. The Library of Congress website is a source for information about the library's holdings, its programs, its services, and its history. The website has also become an educational resource for American history and culture because of the American Memory project. A related website, "Thomas" is a comprehensive portal to information about federal legislation. Both sites are sufficiently sophisticated for use by advanced researchers, yet they are appropriate for school-age researchers who are seeking authoritative information. The Library of Congress is not typical of the world's national libraries, but it does exemplify their major functions.


As conservative institutions that are concerned primarily with preserving their nations' intellectual culture, national libraries have reacted to technological developments in the printing and publishing world. As leaders in the library community, they have led the field in programs for preservation of library materials and the adoption of information technologies.

See also:Archives, Public Records, and Records Management; Bibliography; Libraries, Digital; Libraries, Functions and Types of; Libraries, History of; Library Automation; Museums.


Chandler, George. (1982). International and National Library and Information Services: A Review of Some Recent Developments. New York: Pergamon.

International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. (2001). "National Libraries of the World: An Address List." <>.

Library of Congress. (2001). "The Library of Congress." <>.

Library of Congress. (2001). "Thomas: Legislative Information on the Internet." <>.

Line, Maurice. (1988). "National Libraries in a Time of Change." IFLA Journal 14(1):20-28.

Line, Maurice. (1990). "Do We Need National Libraries, and If So What Sort?" Alexandria 2(2):27-38.

Thomas D. Walker