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The history of the library

Our love of libraries is nothing new, and history records famous libraries as far back as those of Ashurbanipal (in 7th-century BCE Assyria) and Ancient Greek Alexandria. As society and culture have progressed, so too have our libraries. Even epochs such as the Middle Ages (known erroneously as the “Dark Ages” for its lack of learning and culture) had their share of renowned book collections. Indeed, the later Renaissance was only possible because of these stores of learning, preserved for centuries. The very concept of the Renaissance predicates access to a library, because if Antiquity were to be reborn, the guidelines for this rebirth had to emerge from research into the culture of Greece and Rome–which had to take place in a well-stocked library.

Today, libraries are celebrated all over the world, for their democratisation and dissemination of knowledge and literature. With this in mind, we’ve compiled some fascinating facts about the history of the library–from Cheng dynasty China to the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz.

  1. In 26 BCE, Emperor Cheng (r. 33–7 BCE), with mounds of writing on bamboo and silk piled up inside and outside the palace precincts, launched a project that would begin China’s proud tradition of state library development and bibliographical scholarship over the next two thousand years. Stewards were sent to gather lost writings throughout the land, and a team of subject specialists led by Liu Xiang (79–8 BCE) were tasked to collate all the assembled bundles of bamboo slips and scrolls of silk with a view to establishing sound texts (a precursor to today’s subject classifications).
  2. Libraries were a common fixture of many towns in the Roman Empire. There are relatively few records however, as many were destroyed by fire. In 356, the emperor Constantius II created a scriptorium (a room specifically set apart for reading and writing) that apparently serviced an imperial library, but it was destroyed by fire in 475. There was also a substantial collection in the Serapeum of Alexandria (an Ancient Greek Temple), but this too was destroyed by fire in 391.
  3. Books in medieval libraries were acquired in three ways: by being produced in a monastic scriptorium, by donation or bequest, or by purchase. In 1289 the library of the University of Paris contained 1,017 volumes which, by 1338, had increased to 1,722—an increase of about 70%. The development of the universities affected the content, appearance, and production of books as well as their price (something that was also much affected by the use of paper rather than parchment). The positive effects of the printing revolution were not immediate however, and it is not until about 1500 that we begin to see its real revolutionary impact.
  4. The most luxurious library of late medieval Hungary was that of King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–1490): the so-called Corvinian Library in the royal palace of Buda. Many of its manuscripts were copied and illuminated in Renaissance Florence, but the King established a scriptorium in Buda as well. The library suffered dispersion during the Turkish invasion in the early 16th century, but it is estimated that it contained around 200 manuscripts. They are now kept in more than twenty libraries around the world, including libraries in Budapest, Cambridge, Florence, New York, Venice, Vienna, and Wolfenbüttel.
  5. Libraries were an incredibly important tool for the early American colonists. Faced with choices about what to bring across the Atlantic, many settlers privileged their books. Overall, libraries in this early era of colonization emerged largely from the efforts of individuals, one notable example being John Winthrop II. When Winthrop journeyed to America in 1631, he brought with him an impressive library that he assiduously added to over the years: by 1640, it was reputed to contain 1,000 volumes, making it the largest library in seventeenth-century British America. Winthrop’s collection was also unique in its emphasis on science, one of the owner’s intellectual passions.
  6. Did you know that the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had a profound impact on library science? Leibniz discussed the order of books in a library in Nouveaux Essais sur l’Entendement humain, composed between 1703 and 1705. He pointed out one of the major difficulties encountered by librarians: since “one and the same truth may have many places according to the different relations it can have, those who arrange a library very often do not know where to place certain books”. In this regard, Leibniz maintains that the traditional, convenient, and therefore more applied “faculty system” that is, the division based on the four university faculties of theology, jurisprudence, medicine, and philosophy, “is not to be despised.”

Featured image via Pixabay.