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Library History

If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing. - attributed to Benjamin Franklin

A small group found that during discussions they would often be lacking a key piece of factual information that would be easy to identify in a book. Without that evidence the debate could not be concluded. What they needed was a library.

This scenario could take place at any point in history. It could be a group of Greek citizens, early Americans, or 21st century teens working on a class project. What they needed was information. The library could take the form of a shelf of scrolls, a wall of books, or a glowing screen.

In this case, the well-documented group was Junto led by Benjamin Franklin and the discussion would lead to the first subscription library in 1731.

Ben Franklin Subscription Library PD

Libraries through History

A library provides organized access to a collection of materials that serve the informational needs of an individual or group. The image below shows the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress Photos.com 78479878

In the book The Memory of Mankind (2001, xi), Frances Lieber is cited as saying "libraries are the bridges over which civilization travels from generation to generation and from country to country."

"'A library,' I said, 'may consist of six volumes, or it may contain six thousand; but any number of books brought together in one place, no more, of itself, constitutes a library than a pile of bricks can be called a house... Books are simply the material from which the library is fashioned... Now a library... is a structure, like a work of architecture, a composition, like a drama or a piece of music; like them it is the intelligible, conscious, and disciplined expression, in a concrete substance, of an idea.'" - Holliday (1919, 195-196)

Throughout history, people have used the quest for information, the pleasure of reading, or the desire to do public good as reasons for establishing libraries.

"If an extraterrestrial spaceship had been stationed high above the region of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile for the past 5000 years and its sights had been directed toward libraries, the interpreters of the data would have observed remarkable changes. Clay tablets of Mesopotamia and papyrus rolls of Egypt would have given way centuries later to parchment and paper codices and then to microforms and computer tape. The buildings that house these bibliographic records would have changed from monumental archives to modest private collections and functional public, academic, school, and special libraries. Lastly, the users of the collections would have enlarged in scope from a few priests, royalty, and scribes to masses of students, researchers, and ordinary citizens. From this stream of changes the interpreters of data would have to isolate the main currents of librarianship, to identify the forces that drew them along, and to formulate a theory explaining all the phenomena observed." (Krzys, 2003, 1621)

"Ideally, library history should not be studied on its own, but always in relation to the relevant social, educational, and publishing history." (Olle, 1971, 11)

Issues in the Study of Library History

"Each age has formed its collections of graphic records to conform to its intellectual habits. From the simple equipment of a mediaeval monastery, limited to the needs prescribed by its rule, through the meagre collection of the early school, consisting only of texts required for the classroom, the modern free public library has been developed through a long series of transformations." (Butler, 1933, 79)

EscorialBiblioteca Wikimedia Xauxa Hakan Svensson CC-A-SAInvestigating the history of libraries can be difficult. Over the centuries, many libraries have been destroyed either accidently or on purpose.

In the 1920s and 30s, Mackensen and Inayatullah were the some of the first people to focus on the history of Islamic librarianship. Inayahtullah (1938, 156) observed that

"so far as I know, apart from the Egyptian writer Maqrizi's description, in his Khitat, of the libraries that existed in his country and another Arabic work on libraries in Muslim Spain mentioned by Casiri, no systematic or satisfactory treatise on the numerous libraries that arose in the Muslim world has come down to us. It is only from occasional notices in works on biography, history and belles-lettres that we learn of their existence and a few details about them. The sources of our information on this subject are scarce and scattered; and it is often the case that we learn of a library or collection of books only when we come upon a report of how it came to a regrettable end, either by dispersion or destruction by accidental fire or through an act of vandalism".

The photo on the right shows the Escorial library where Miguel Casiri (1710-1791) was a librarian in the 18th century.

Particular segments of library history are often overlooked. For instance, although women have planned an important role in library history, these people aren't always represented in the study of library history. The Women of Library History blog features these overlooked individuals from library history.


Cantor, N. F. & Schneider, R. I. (1967). How To Study History. Crowell.

Krzyr, Richard (2003). Library historiography. In Miriam A. Drake (ed), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Second Edition, CRC Press, 1621-1641. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=Sqr-_3FBYiYC&pg=PA1621

Olle, James G. (1971). Library History: An Examination Guidebook. Second Edition. Archon Books & Clive Bingley.

Stearns, Peter N. (1998). Why Study History? American Historical Association. Available: http://www.historians.org/pubs/free/WhyStudyHistory.htm

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich (2001). The Memory of Mankind: The Story of Libraries Since the Dawn of History. Oak Knoll Press.

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