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The Development of Libraries in the Ancient World

The Development of Libraries in the Ancient World


Libraries are institutions designed to preserve records, written material, legends, and literature. They preserve the history of time and place as well as the intellectual activity, discoveries, and innovative ideas within a culture. The first libraries of the western world were collections of literature, commentaries, records, and speculations on the way the world worked. Many of these institutions also encouraged scientific investigation, new ideas, and innovative methods of understanding the world.


Libraries were inconceivable until writing was invented between 5,500 and 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Other scripts were invented by the Minoans on Crete 5,000 years ago, the Hittites in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 4,000 years ago, and in China about 3,500 years ago.

The Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed the first writing system. Along the riverbanks, they found both clay and reeds. Pressing the end of a reed into wet clay made a distinct mark which remained after the clay dried. Sumerian writing, called cuneiform, was wedge shaped because the reeds were roughly three sided. Egyptian writing, called hieroglyphics, was done with a reed stylus which was dipped in ink. The stylus was then pressed onto a flat sheet made from papyrus, which grew in marshes along the Nile River. To make the papyrus sheet, the stalk was peeled, cut into strips, and pressed flat to form long scrolls of writing material. Both cuneiform and hieroglyphics developed from pictures that soon evolved into symbols as scribes refined the language. As the number of records increased, the need arose for storage places where they could be preserved and made available for use.

Little is known about the earliest libraries, and few have survived in any form. Some of the written works they contained deteriorated because they had been recorded on perishable surfaces, some libraries were destroyed by conquerors, and others fell into disuse when no one was left who could read the material.

The first and largest library of which there are tangible remains was in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria (an empire in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey), which existed from about 5000 to 612 b.c. The last ruler of Assyria was Ashurbanipal, who was the most powerful man in the world of the seventh century b.c. A fierce warrior, Ashurbanipal ruled Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and Egypt. He was a scholar and a patron of the arts and built a great library at his palace in Nineveh. He instructed his subjects to collect texts from all parts of his realm. Eventually the library held tablets detailing the history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia as well as what was known of chemistry, botany, mathematics, and cosmology. We know little of the activities that surrounded the library at Nineveh, but they probably centered on gathering, copying, translating, and reproducing the material that was available. Fourteen years after Ashurbanipal died, Nineveh was sacked and the library destroyed.

There had been two libraries in Egypt, one in Amarna in the fourteenth century b.c. and another at Thebes, but nothing of these libraries remains. The most important library of the ancient world was in Alexandria, a city in the Nile delta that had been founded by Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) in 332 b.c. The library was part of an institution of learning called the Alexandria Museum, which was established and supported by the rulers of Egypt beginning in the third century b.c. The purpose of the museum was to teach and to do scientific research, and the library was created to support this effort.

Much is known about the activities of the library at Alexandria. The librarians purchased scrolls from the private libraries of scholars and collectors in Athens and other cities, and copied and stored them at Alexandria. The library is believed to have contained a copy of every existing scroll in the Mediterranean area, and all scrolls were available to scholars associated with the museum. At its peak, at least 100 scholars worked, did research, or taught at the museum at one time. Some did original work in a sort of early research laboratory, some did original research, others wrote commentaries on the works of other scholars.

Many of the brightest minds of the ancient world worked or studied at the museum and library in Alexandria. Erasistratus, a Greek who lived from 325 to 250 b.c., became the assistant to Herophilus, the founder of the school of anatomy in Alexandria. Herophilus was one of the first anatomists to conduct postmortems (examinations of the body after death). Erasistratus is credited with being first to distinguish between motor and sensory nerves. He also traced the veins and arteries to the heart and named the trachea and the tricuspid valve in the heart. No works by either man have survived, but their ideas endured in fragments cited by others.

Euclid, the Greek mathematician called the "Father of Geometry," taught at the Alexandria Museum around 300 b.c. The ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I, invited him to come there to work. Euclid's teaching affected many scholars in the ancient world. The Elements, of which Euclid wrote most sections, has been of greater influence on scientific thinking in its field than any other publication. The Elements, compiles and arranges all the knowledge about the various fields of mathematics that existed during Euclid's time, especially geometry, and includes his famed proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

Archimedes, the most original mathematical thinker of the ancient world, was also an engineer, inventor, and physicist. Archimedes is thought to have studied at the Alexandria Museum around 260 b.c., although he did most of his later work in his hometown of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Archimedes discovered basic laws of hydrostatics (the study of fluids), engineering, and mathematics and invented many devices that continued in use for years, including the Archimedian screw used to raise water.

Eratosthenes, the first man known to have calculated Earth's circumference, was the librarian at Alexandria from about 250 b.c. He knew Earth was round and that the Sun cast almost no shadow at the equator at noon. To calculate the polar circumference of Earth, he placed two sticks at a measured distance apart north and south and calibrated the difference in the angle of the shadow cast by the Sun at each location at the same time. His result was amazingly close to the actual figure. He also devised a method of finding prime numbers which is called the "sieve of Eratosthenes."

Ptolemy, the greatest astronomer of the second century a.d., also studied at Alexandria where he did work in mathematics and geography. His astronomical ideas were gathered and published in a work called the Almagest, which was accepted as the final authority on astronomy until the sixteenth century.

One of the most interesting scholars associated with the library at Alexandria was Hypatia, the daughter of a Greek mathematician and final director of the museum. Born in a.d. 370, Hypatia was the first woman to make a contribution to the development of mathematics. She studied mathematics and lectured on it as well as on philosophy. None of her works remain, but she is mentioned in later works. She was a leader in new ideas of philosophy and wrote extensive commentaries on math, although there is no evidence that she did original research. As a pagan philosopher, she antagonized members of a fanatical Christian sect and was murdered by a mob in 415. Hypatia was instrumental in preserving the ancient works on mathematics and philosophy that still exist.

The museum and library buildings at Alexandria were destroyed in the civil war that occurred in the late third century a.d. Another branch of the library, located in the Temple of Sarapis, was destroyed by Christians in 391.


The collection and preservation of works of literature and history in the great libraries of ancient times was a great service for later ages, as these works became the basis of our knowledge of vanished cultures.

When the city of Nineveh was destroyed, Ashurbanipal's library was buried in the rubble and its location lost. However, when the library was rediscovered in the 1850s, many clay tablets found in the remains of this library were still readable because the clay had been fired by the burning of the city. Some of these tablets contain ancient codes of law, including the code written by Hammurabi in the eighteenth century b.c. About 20,700 surviving tablets and fragments were taken to England, and some are on display in the British Museum in London. These clay tablets provide modern scholars with most of what is known of the science, history, and literature of Babylon and Assyria. If it were not for the library of Ashurbanipal, we would know very little of the Assyrian's knowledge of the movements of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars. In addition, important Mesopotamian epics such as the story of Gilgamesh would not have survived.

From the variety of those scholars who studied, taught, or worked at the museum and library at Alexandria, it is clear that these institutions were of vital importance to the learning and culture of the ancient world for centuries, and that they spread learning to all areas of the Mediterranean. Many books written by these scholars became influential references about specific scientific disciplines. Without the museum and library at Alexandria, we would know much less today about the world from which our culture and sciences evolved.


Further Reading

Clagett, Marshall. Greek Science in Antiquity. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co, 1955.

Frankfurt, Henry. The Birth of Civilization in the Near East. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1950.

Woolley, Leonard. The Sumerians. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1965.

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