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The Library – Introduction to Item 75

A large, glass building set against a grey-blue skyThe public library has always been my favourite place to go, which is hardly surprising to anyone who knows me. I’ve mentioned before that I was an advanced reader, and I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I loved the whole ritual of going to the library, browsing the books and choosing what to take home.

When I visited Margaret and Dennis, their library issued them with little cardboard sleeves – when you borrowed a book, the ticket from it was stamped, popped into the sleeve and stored in alphabetical order. In Winlaton, where my grandparents lived, I had my own ticket, but children were restricted to six books at a time. I often knew which books I wanted next, so I would carry my returns back, and sit on the wall outside the Spar to skim-read the end of the last book so I could hand them in before the library shut.

I spent hours in the school library, particularly when, as an awkward teenager, I wanted to hide from the outside world. And in the old City Library in Newcastle, since demolished for a new, more modern but less characterful building, I revised for my GCSEs and A-levels in their silent study rooms at the very top. I even worked for a few months as a library assistant for the Gateshead services, and it’s still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. 

The History of The Library

Unsurprisingly, the library has a long and ancient history, because it was an important way to preserve the written word. In the early days, those would have been written on clay tablets, examples of which, dating back to 2,600 BC, have been found in temple rooms in Sumer, Mesopotamia, which is where the poet-priestess Enheduanna lived.

At this time, the library was an archive and a repository for commercial records rather than somewhere people went to read or borrow books. Libraries in Mesopotamia employed a cataloguing system to track what they had in their collections, noting important details from the tablet on a colophon – a summary of the book.

During the Achaemenid Empire in Persia (550–330 BC) libraries were very important for both collecting The ruins of an ancient building set in grass - the walls have crumbled but windows can still be seenadministrative documents, but more significantly for storing resources about history, medicine and science.

The Empire was the largest that had ever existed up to that point, stretching from the Balkans in the West to the Indus Valley in the East, covering 5.5 million square km and many different places. It’s hardly surprising, then, that its ruler, Cyrus the Great, wanted an efficient record-keeping system. 

Libraries became popular during the Roman period, with the private library being a popular, if underused, feature of late-empire villas. Public libraries had been a feature of the fora for years, acting as repositories for Greek texts. In 6th century China, a writer and philosopher called Laozi was keeper of books at the Zhou dynasty library, the first in the country. While Laozi may not have been real, evidence does suggest that libraries existed.

Libraries continued to appear in China throughout the centuries, although Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the destruction of almost all books in 213 BC. The Han Dynasty which followed established three imperial libraries, and 400 years later private Chinese libraries where holding Buddhist texts, which had been reproduced thanks to the prevalence of woodblock printing.

In the Middle Ages, Greek and Roman texts were left to rot in favour of preserving Christian works in Europe, but in the East, they were copied out and saved. Books could be borrowed from European libraries if the lender left a deposit, either of money or a book of equal value.

In Muslim countries, libraries were of great significance as a way of storing knowledge, but were inaccessible to the public. Biographers, geographers and historians contributed to or managed libraries, which were valuable resources to scholars.

The Library of Alexandria

The most famous, and widely regarded as the greatest, library was that of Alexandria in Ancient Egypt. A large research institution, the Mouseion, was dedicated to the nine Muses of the arts, and the Library was just one part of it.

An illustration of scholars reading papers and clustered around a large stone columnIt’s thought that Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367 BC – January 282 BC) may have started to plan the library during his reign, but it was his son Ptolemy II Philadelphius (308/9 – 28 January 246 BC) who actually built it.

The Ptolemaic kings considered collecting texts as an important part of their rule, and had acquired between 40,000 and 400,000 papyrus scrolls for the Library. This attracted important influential scholars, who benefited from its collected wisdom.

For instance, Eratosthenes of Cyrene calculated the circumference of the earth (although he was out by quite a bit) while working in the Great Library, and a chap called Callimachus wrote the ‘Pinakes’, considered as the first library catalogue in the world.

There has been a long-held belief that the Great Library was destroyed in a fire deliberately set, but in fact, its end was gradual rather than sudden. Not all Ptolemaic kings valued knowledge, as in 145BC Ptolemy VIII Physcon threw out the intellectuals of Alexandria.

The head librarian resigned and went into exile, and the remaining scholars fled the city. It IS true that Julius Caesar burned part of the Library in 48BC, but this appears to have been accidental, and the Library was rebuilt soon after. There was little support or funding for it during Roman times, and what was left of it was destroyed during a rebellion between 270 and 275 AD.

The Public Library

For several centuries, the library evolved into private collections in the houses of the wealthy, or subscription libraries, again accessible only to those who could afford the membership. In the 19th century, commercial subscription libraries tended to focus on one narrow topic, and rarely held works of fiction.

Private subscription libraries were often more like gentlemen’s clubs, respectable venues for the gentry and professionals to read tightly regulated publications, and with exclusive membership. As the Industrial Revolution wore on, there was then a need for subscription libraries for tradesmen, and access to their collections was cheaper.

The Public Libraries Act of 1850 introduced the modern library as we know it today. The Act was designed to allow

A city street, with buses and cars, and a grey building to the right. The sky is blue but cloudy

The view from the top of Newcastle City Library

local authorities to establish free, accessible to all libraries. There was also a notion that workers, who had more free time than ever before, were squandering it, and somewhere they could go and improve themselves should be encouraged.

In 1870, the Education Act was designed to improve literacy, meaning that libraries were even more essential than before. Seven years later, there were 75 libraries across the UK, and 300 by 1900, which inspired other countries to do the same.


Brittanica: The History of Libraries
Book Riot: 10 Facts About the Ancient Library of Alexandria
Cite This for Me: A Brief History of Libraries