The History of Libraries

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Podcast Transcript

As soon as humans developed systems of writing, they faced a problem. What to do with all of the things that were written down? 

If you were going to document the lives of kings or tax records, then you need to be able to reference these details at some later date. 

The solution to the problem was the creation of repositories for documents. While they have changed dramatically over time, the same basic institutions are still with us today. 

Learn more about libraries and how they changed over time on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


When humans first started to write things down, they did so using cuniform and clay tablets. 

This was a big advancement in that it allowed for the preservation of thoughts, ideas, and information. However, it then introduced a new problem.

What do you do with all of the clay tablets? 

The answer was pretty simple. You build a large storage facility or warehouse for them. 

There are rooms with clay tablets found in Sumerian temples, which date back about 4500 years ago. These weren’t really libraries as they would come to be known, but that is how libraries got their start. They were just places to store writings where the literate class, usually priests or scribes, could access them. 

The first thing we could call a proper library was probably the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh in modern-day Iraq. Ashurbanipal was the last great king of the Assyrian Empire, around 700 BC.  

In addition to being a great general, Ashurbanipal was also an intellectual. He had his library built for his own purposes. It was discovered in 1849, and the library contains over 30,000 clay tablets, most of which are broken. 

Many of the tables consist of correspondence, proclamations, and financial documents. 

The rest mostly deal with religious texts from Sumaria and surrounding kingdoms. 

There are also some works of philosophy and a small number of literary works. 

Almost all of the tablets have an inscription on them indicating they belong to Ashurbanipal’s library. 

There were similar archives for written material in ancient Egypt, except instead of clay tablets, they held papyrus scrolls. 

The greatest library of the ancient world was unquestionably the Library of Alexandria. 

The Library of Alexandria had its origins with Ptolemy I Soter, who was one of the generals of Alexander the Great.

I’ve discussed the origins of the City of Alexandria and the Library of Alexandria in a previous episode. For the purpose of this episode, the important thing about the Library of Alexandria is that it was built with the intent of being a universal library.

It also served as something more than just a warehouse for texts. The library was a center for learning. The Musaeum, which was a part of the library, was the ancient equivalent of a university and was home to some of the greatest minds in the ancient world for centuries. 

While the Library of Alexandria was the greatest library in the ancient world, it was far from the only one. 

The Library of Pergamum, established around the same time as the Library of Alexandria, was located in the Greek city of the same name in what is today Western Turkey. 

According to legend, in the year 43 BC, Mark Antony gave all 200,000 from the library to Queen Cleopatra as a gift to replace the lost texts from the fire of Alexandria. 

Augustus later replaced many of the scrolls taken in a goodwill gesture to undo what Antony had done. 

The Library of Celsus was another Roman library built in Western Turkey. It was built as a tribute to Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, who was the governor of the province of Asia. 

While there were a small number of great libraries, they were few and far between. It would require a long journey to reach one. More common were private libraries, which could be found in the homes of the wealthy. 

The most famous example of a private library was the Villa of the Papyri in the town of Herculaneum, just outside of Pompeii. 

Excavations of the villa in the 19th century discovered over 1,800 charred scrolls. 

The story of the Herculaneum papyri is a fascinating story that will be worthy of an episode of its own in the future, but suffice it to say a personal library of this many scrolls was probably not uncommon amongst the wealthy. 

The philosopher Seneca actually complained about private libraries. He felt they were mostly for show, oftentimes owned by people who couldn’t even read. 

It was during the late Republican period of Rome that the first public library opened. It was created by one of Julius Caesar’s lieutenants, Asinius Pollio. It was called the Anla Libertatis, and it was located near the Roman Forum. 

Subsequent emperors built their own libraries in Rome in an attempt to curry favor with the public and outshine their predecessors. 

China had its own system for libraries. 

In the first century, the Chinese scholar Liu Xin created the first classification system for texts in a library. 

The third century saw the establishment of the first imperial libraries during the Han Dynasty. 

Libraries also appeared in Persia and India, and to some degree, in every civilization that had a form of writing. The Academy of Gundeshapur in modern-day Iran was home to the greatest library in the Sassanid empire. 

When Constantine the Great established a new Roman capital in Constantinople, he established the Imperial Library of Constantinople. It eventually grew to 120,000 scrolls and texts but was later devastated when crusaders sacked the city in 1204. 

In western Europe, with the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of Christianity, libraries tended to be located in monasteries. Monks would meticulously copy texts and perform illustrations in books. However, Christians in western Europe tended to only care about Christian books. 

One of the greatest monastic libraries in the world is located at the Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland. I had the pleasure of visiting it several years ago, and it is truly one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It is worth a trip to St. Gall just to see it. 

Many of the great works from Greece and the east were preserved and copied by libraries in the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. They are the reason why we have many of these works today. 

In Baghdad, was created what was probably the greatest library in the world after the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, The House of Wisdom. 

The House of Wisdom was the center of Islamic thought and learning during the Golden age of Islam. It existed for almost 500 years until its destruction in 1258 by the Mongols in the Siege of Baghdad. 

During this entire time, and for several centuries after, books and scrolls were rather rare and expensive. Copying a text was incredibly time-consuming, and it had to be copied perfectly. 

The material used for most texts was parchment, which was made from animal skins and was quite expensive. Even the advent of paper, while it was cheaper, was still relatively expensive because it was made from cloth. 

On top of the costs associated with copying or creating a book, the fact was the most people couldn’t read. 

Things changed profoundly with the invention of the printing press. The printing press radically increased the number of books available and correspondingly decreased the price. Instead of books being copied one at a time, over a period of months, you could now create hundreds of copies in a very short period of time. 

The number of libraries exploded throughout Europe. They were no longer solely controlled by monasteries. 

Kings and wealthy patrons established their own libraries. Pope Nicholas V started the Vatican Library, the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, which was to be a public library open to scholars. 

You also saw libraries that were associated with major universities. 

The Bodleian Library at Oxford University was established in 1602 and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. 

The Protestant Reformation saw the creation of libraries for individual communities, which was something that hadn’t existed since Rome. By the same token, the Thirty Year War also saw the destruction of many libraries as well. 

While libraries proliferated, they still weren’t necessarily what you would call public. Access to libraries was usually restricted to members of a given university or church. 

The development of true public libraries began in the early 17th century. These were known as “chain libraries.” The books were attached to chains which were attached to the shelves. The chains were long enough that you could sit at a desk and read the book but not long enough to be taken somewhere else to be read. 

The early 18th century saw the rise of lending libraries and subscription libraries. This is the type of library that most of you might be familiar with. In a lending library, you can take a book out of the library and bring it home to read. Prior to the development of lending libraries, texts had to stay on the premises because they were too rare and expensive to leave the building.

Most of these libraries were subscription libraries, which were privately owned. You had to purchase a subscription to the library, sort of like joining a gym or fitness club today. 

The 18th century also saw the start of the British Library. It was originally just a part of the British Museum but eventually grew due to donations from several large private libraries, including the libraries of King George I and II. 

One of the things which ensured the British Library would be successful was a law passed in 1757, which mandated that a copy of every book published in Britain be sent to the British Library. 

By the start of the 19th century, circulating libraries became popular in Great Britain. A circulating library is very similar to a subscription library, except that they catered more towards the demands of the public, which usually meant works of contemporary fiction. 

In 1800, the United States established the Library of Congress, which was originally intended to be the library for congress itself. It lost a considerable part of its collection in the war of 1812 and then purchased the entire collection from Thomas Jefferson to make up for it. 

After the civil war, congress passed a law similar to that in Britain, which required two copies of all works printed in the United States to be sent to the Library of Congress. 

By the mid-19th century, there were over 500 subscription or circulation libraries that were open to the public in Britain. These were open to the public but were still privately owned and operated. 

The British Public Libraries Act of 1850 allowed local municipalities with over 10,000 people to establish their own free libraries using taxes. 

In the United States, the first free library was established in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. 

After the Civil War, free libraries began to grow in importance as the need for universal literacy became widely accepted. 

The person who was single-handedly responsible for the explosion in free libraries in the US, UK, and other Commonwealth countries, was the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. 

Carnegie was responsible for over 2500 libraries around the world, including 1,689 in the United States, 660 in the United Kingdom, and 125 in Canada, plus libraries that were established in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and many other countries. 

Carnegie didn’t just throw money at libraries. He gave grants to local communities with several conditions attached.

The community had to provide the land, they had to pay the operating costs of the library, and they had to provide free service to everyone.  This ensured that every library would be an ongoing concern well into the future. 

Carnegie library grants were given out between 1883 and 1929, a period that saw an explosion in the growth of libraries. By 1919, half of all libraries in the United States had been built by Carnegie grants. 

In southern states which had segregated libraries, he built libraries specifically for African American patrons. 

Adjusted for inflation, the Carnegie library program remains one of the single largest philanthropic projects in history. 

Today libraries are ubiquitous. They can be found in almost every school at every grade level. Even very small communities have small libraries. 

In the 21st century, the role of a library has changed. They have evolved to include digital resources, such as e-books, online journals, and multimedia content. With the advent of the internet and digital media, libraries have become even more important in helping people navigate the vast amount of information available and providing access to reliable sources.

While libraries have changed and will continue to change over the coming years, there is still a direct line connecting the modern digital libraries of today with King Ashurbanipal’s rooms of clay tablets. 


The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Killer659 over on Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write:

Great podcast

I listen to this during my bedtime routine, and I can definitely say this is one of the best podcasts I’ve found from an ad. One thing I think could be fun is doing more episodes about dinosaurs and ice age creatures, although I do somewhat understand why Gary isn’t doing much of that. Other than that… 17 stars.

Thanks, Killer! Dinosaurs are definitely something I haven’t done much on as of yet. There are a whole bunch of ways I could approach the topic, and I do have some paleontology related episodes on the list. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.