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History of libraries


The history of libraries began with the first efforts to organize collections of documents. Topics of interest include accessibility of the collection, acquisition of materials, arrangement and finding tools, the book trade, the influence of the physical properties of the different writing materials, language distribution, role in education, rates of literacy, budgets, staffing, libraries for specially targeted audiences, architectural merit, patterns of usage, and the role of libraries in a nation's cultural heritage, and the role of government, church or private sponsorship. Since the 1960s issues of computerization and digitization come to the fore.

Library history is the academic discipline devoted to the study of the history of libraries; it is a subfield of library science and of history.

The first libraries consisted of archives of the earliest form of writing—the clay tablets in cuneiform script discovered in temple rooms in Sumer, some dating back to 2600 BC. These archives, which mainly consisted of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, mark the end of prehistory and the start of history.

Things were much the same in the government and temple records on papyrus of Ancient Egypt. The earliest discovered private archives were kept at Ugarit; besides correspondence and inventories, texts of myths may have been standardized practice-texts for teaching new scribes. There is also evidence of libraries at Nippur about 1900 BC and those at Nineveh about 700 BC showing a library classification system.

Over 30,000 clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal have been discovered at Nineveh, providing modern scholars with an amazing wealth of Mesopotamian literary, religious and administrative work. Among the findings were the Enuma Elish, also known as the Epic of Creation, which depicts a traditional Babylonian view of creation, the Epic of Gilgamesh, a large selection of "omen texts" including Enuma Anu Enlil which "contained omens dealing with the moon, its visibility, eclipses, and conjunction with planets and fixed stars, the sun, its corona, spots, and eclipses, the weather, namely lightning, thunder, and clouds, and the planets and their visibility, appearance, and stations", and astronomic/astrological texts, as well as standard lists used by scribes and scholars such as word lists, bilingual vocabularies, lists of signs and synonyms, and lists of medical diagnoses.



  • Black, Alistair. A New History of the English Public Library: Social and Intellectual Contexts, 1850-1914, London and New York: Leicester University Press (1996); The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000 (2000)
  • Casson, Lionel. (2001) Libraries in the Ancient World, Yale University Press; 169 pp.
  • Harris, Michael H. (1999). History of Libraries of the Western World (4th ed.). Scarecrow Press. ISBN . 
  • Harris, Michael H. ed. (1971) Reader in American Library History online edition; articles by scholars
  • Hoare, Peter, ed. (3 vol. 2006) The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, 2072 pages
  • Hobson, Anthony. Great Libraries, Littlehampton Book Services (1970), surveys 27 famous European libraries (and 5 American ones) in 300pp
  • Krause, Louise Beerstecher (1898), Reading List on Library Buildings, Boston: Boston Book Company 
  • Lerner, Fred. (2nd ed. 2009) The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age, London, Bloomsbury
  • Martin, Lowell A. (1998) Enrichment: A History of the Public Library in the United States in the Twentieth Century, Scarecow Press
  • Staikos, Konstantinos, The History of the Library in Western Civilization, translated by Timothy Cullen, New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2004-2013 (six volumes).
  • Stam, David H. (2001). International Dictionary of Library Histories. Taylor & Francis. , 1100pp; covers 122 major libraries in Europe, 59 in U.S, and 44 others, plus 47 thematic essays
  • Wedgeworth, Robert, et al. (eds.) (1993). World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (3rd ed.). American Library Association. 
  • Wiegand, Wayne A.; Donald G. Davis, Jr. (1994). Encyclopedia of Library History. Taylor & Francis. ; covers 60 major libraries
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