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The Beginnings of Libraries: 10,000-3000 BCE

sumerian cuneiform wikimedia commons PDLet's explore the introduction of clay tablets and the beginnings of writing systems.

Around 3000 BCE, people began living in the fertile regions of Egypt and Mesopotamia developing the cornerstone of civilization, writing. The Norte Chico civilization begins in Peru. The Indus Valley Civilization in what is now Pakistan and India emerged. The year 2467 BCE is considered be the beginning of Chinese Civilization. Around this time, Stonehenge was constructed.

Early libraries began as warehouses for government and religious records. As their function expanded, scribes were housed in or nearby the library to record information on clay tablets, papyrus, and other writing surfaces. Collections expanded beyond recordkeeping to include information related to math, science, agriculture, and theology.

Early organizational systems were developed to keep track of library collections. Wooden shelving were used for storage and lists of works housed in the library were created.

Clay Tablets

Evidence of the first writing on clay tablets has been found in southern Mesopotamia. Because of their durability, clay tablets were also used in other areas including Persia, Asia Minor, and Syria. The use of clay tablets continued for a couple thousand years.

The Sumerians use a wooden stylus to place simple shapes and lines into moist clay. This form of writing became known as cuneiform because of the wedge-shaped markings made in the clay. The image on the left above shows a Sumerian cuneiform from the 26th century BCE.

Record keeping was the the primary use for writing. Scribes documented transactions, inventories, and government regulations. Scribe schools flourish throughout Sumer.

Because of the complicated combinations of signs, only a few people beyond scribes were able to read the tablets. After the Akkadians conquered the Sumerians, the written language was expanded to include new vocabulary. The same was done in other area of the Near East.

Also during this time the first known mathematical table was created. Dating to around 2600 BCE, the table contained three columns on each side with ten rows front and back.

The earliest known printing date to 2,200 BCE. Inscriptions on brick were created, then stamped into soft clay before firing.

Meso2mil Map PD Wikimedia Commons CC A-SANippur Tablets
Southern Mesopotamia

Nippur was an ancient city and a special center for worship of the god Enlil. A collection of tablets dating to 2500 BCE was found in a mound near the temple. As many as 40,000 tablets have been excavated from the site. Appearing to be a collection belonging to the temple and associated school for scribes, the tablets contained mathematical tables, lists, writing exercises, and even hymns.

The image on the right shows the cities that may have been referenced in the tablets including Nippur.

One example is known as the Sumerian Farmer's Almanac. The first farmer's almanac, this small clay tablet approximately 3 inches by 4.5 inches in size contains thirty five lines of text. Appearing to have been created by a farmer for his son, it was an instructional guide for yearly agricultural activity. Other related agricultural tablets were also found in the area.

The Abu Salbikh tablet is known as a "wisdom text" that provides instructions in piety and virtue.

The oldest known medical text and law text were found on tablets dating to 2,000-2,4000 BCE.

Musical notation is a system that represents sounds through written symbols. The earliest musical notation was found in a cuneiform created about 2000 BCE in Nippur. It was written using the diatonic scale.

According to Casson (2001), two tablets from this time period reflect an attempt at collection organization. Both tablets list works of Sumerian literature. One is slightly longer indicating that it was created at a different time.

Learn more at Wikipedia.

Ebla Palace G Archive
Ebla, Syria

Ebla was a major trade center. Dating from around 2500-2250 BCE, the Ebla archive consisted of two small rooms off a large audience hall in a palace. While one room contained government and economic records, the other larger room held literary texts such as myths, epic narratives, hymns, rituals, and epic along with gazetteers, and school-related texts. The collection contained about 2,000 clay tablets written using Sumerian cuneiform. Materials used in the scriptorium such as dictionaries, copybooks, and students scratch pads were found indicating that Ebla was a major educational center training scribes (Dumper, 2007). According to Lerner (1999), scholars from other areas of the world came to the city bringing their own texts. They left with copies of texts from Ebla. In this way, the library grew.

Excavations indicated that the wood shelving in the room containing the collection had been burned and collapsed. However they were able to reconstruct the organization of the materials and found that the tablets were categorized by subject. The tablets retained their clay tags for reference.

Ebla Clay Tablet PD Wikimedia CommonsAccording to Wellisch (1981), the tablets were stored in recessed wooden shelves, upright with the front facing outward and leaning backward at an angle so the incipit could be seen. They were separated by small pieces of baked clay.

The incipit is the first few words of a text. Before the use of titles, these were used to identify a work. Catalogs of documents were kept by making special catalog tablets containing the incipits of a collection of tablets such as "In our city" or "Honored and noble warrior."

The image on the left shows a tablet from this time period.

The tablets provide an overview of everyday life and insights into the cultural, political, and economic climate of life in Mesopotamia during that time. The city was destroyed around 2240 BCE.

Indus Script
Indus Valley (now Pakistan and India)

The Indus script was developed in the Indus Valley. Emerging between the 33rd and 20th centuries BCE, the complex language was written on miniature tablets, copper plates, pottery, and other items. The writing system was mostly pictorial with some abstract symbols.

Indus seal wikimedia commons cc-a PHGCOMPHGCOM


Unlike the Sumerians who used durable stone tablets, the Egyptians used a fragile paper. Made from the papyrus plant and reeds found along the Nile river, the papyrus paper worked well for writing, but was perishable.

The earliest evidence of using paprus as a writing surface is dated to 3,000 BCE. The oldest known papyrus roll dates to 2900 BCE.

Based on visual evidence from a tomb carving, scribes used a sitting position for writing. Scribes set with crossed legs. The papyrus was laid out on a stretched kilt. The writing was done from right to left in vertical lines. Bags and corded boxes were used for storage.

The image below shows papyrus.

papyrus wikimedia commons PD

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Webb, Kerry (2013). ‘The House of Books’: Libraries and archives in ancient Egypt. Libri, 63(1), 21-32.

Norte Chico (now Peru)

quipu wikimedia commons pdRather than working in clay or plant paper, the people of Norte Chico developed a textile-based writing system known as quipu.

This string-based recording device may have been used to count items, however it may also have been a means of recording complex information.

Unfortunately, the use of the quipu is widely debated. More is known about the later version dating to the Inca time period.

Oracle Bons

oracle bones wikimedia commons cc-sa Herr Klugbeisser Marking on pottery and shells resembling Chinese characters have dated to 2000 BC.

A form of divination, oracle bones are pieces of bone or shell containing questions for deities. These bones were the earliest form of Chinese writing. Dating of the bone varies from 14th to 11th centuries BCE.


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Dumper, Michael & Stanley, Bruce E. (2007). Cities of the Middle East and North Africa: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO.

Lerner, Fred (1999). Libraries through the Ages. Continuum.

Wellisch, Hans H. (Summer 1981). Ebla: The world's oldest library, The Journal of Library History, 16(3), 488-500) .

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