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Early Libraries: 600s CE

Let's examine the expansion of monastery libraries in Europe as well as the rise of libraries in China and Iran.

Monasteries, scriptorium, and libraries expanded throughout Europe during the seventh century CE.

cc-a-sa wikimedia Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

Abbey of St. Gall
St. Gallen, Switzerland

In 612 CE, Irish monk Gallus (550-620/640 CE) built a hermitage on the Steinach river. Saint Othmar built the Abbey of St. Gallen on the first in 720 CE. Under Abbot Waldo of Reicenau (740-814 CE) a scriptorium and library were established.

Monks came from all over the region to copy texts. The library is built in the Rococo style and expanded in the ninth century and again in the 1500s CE as shown in the photograph.

The library collection is the oldest in Switzerland containing 2,100 manuscripts (700-1400s), 1,650 incunabula (before 1500), and old printed text. The collection contains around 160,000 books and is still open to the public today.

Saint Paul from 9th centuryAn example is the manuscripts of St. Paul's letters from the early 9th century (shown on left).

Over 400 manuscripts from the collections can be accessed through the virtual library at

Learn more about the Abbey of St. Gall at Wikipedia.

Fulda Monastery
Fulda, Germany

Established as a Benedictine abbey in 744 CE, Saint Sturm (705-779 CE) under the direction of Saint Boniface created a center for learning with a scriptorium and library. After the martydom of Saint Boniface, Fulda became a place of pilgrimage. The library held 2000 manuscripts including a core collection of Old High German literature.

Monasteries of Mount Athos
Mount Athos

The twenty monasteries of Mount Athos are located on the peninsula of Halkidiki. Also know as Holy Mount or The Garden of the Virgin Mary, it is said to have been visited by the Virgin Mary while on their way to visit Lazarus in Cyprus. The first monks arrived in the 5th century. The monasteries were built like castles with a single, fortified entrance to prevent looters. Each of the monasteries has its own library containing manuscripts, codices, and printed books.

The Iviron Monastery was founded in the 900s by John Tornikipos. In the 16th century it was decorated with paintings. The library contains 2000 codices, 15 liturgical scrolls, 100 manuscripts, and 15,000 printed books.

Take a virtual tour of these monasteries.

Library of Ctesiphon
Ctesiphon, Khvarvaran (Ancient Persia)

The library was destroyed by Arab invaders in 651 CE. Books were thrown into the Euphrates.

Library of Isidore

Isidore, the Bishop of Seville (600-636 CE) wrote that "the best architects object to gilded ceilings in libraries, and to any other marble than cipollino for the floor, because the glitter of fold is hurtful to the eyes, while the green of cipollino is restful to them."

His library contained fourteen presses containing works by theologians, historians, jurists, physicians, and friends. The following verses called Titulus Bibliothece were probably above the door of the entrance (Clark, 1901).

"Here sacred books with worldly books combine;
If poets please you, read them; they are thine;
My meads are full of thorns, but flowers are there;
If thorns displease, let roses be your share.
Here both the Laws in tomes revered behold;
Here what is new is stored, and what is old."

Tang Dynasty Imperial Library

Under the Tang Dynasty (618CE-907 CE), the focus on Confucian Classics continued. Lerner (1999) notes that as the government became more complex the need for a quality library increased. Information about law, medicine, mathematics and other subject were necessary for daily operations.

Woodblock Printing

The spread of literature was enhanced by the invention of woodblock printing. This technique was used for printing text, images, and patterns throughout East Asia. A wood block was produced using a knife, chisel, or sandpaper to cut away the areas of the block. The block was inked and placed on paper. A mirror images was produced making the production of text difficult. For color printing, multiple blocks were used.

The Chinese were the first to use the process to print text on hemp paper. Woodblocks are often associated with Buddhism. During the Tang Dynasty around 629-649 CE, woodblocks were used to print Buddhist scriptures. The Dharni Sutra and Snddharma Pundarik Sutra were both printed during this time period.

Intellectual Property

Discussions of intellectual property began early. The earliest dated wood-block produced book was a sixteen foot long Chinese scroll of the Diamond Sutra (shown below). The colophon on the inner end of the scroll reads, "reverently (caused to be) made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong (i.e., 11th May, CE 868).

Diamon Sutra Wikimedia Commons PD

Gondishapur Hospital and Medical School Library

The Academy of Gonishapur was established in 489 CE. It became known as a center for medicine learning in the 6th century. Scholars from India and China were involved to the academy. The school is credited with transforming medical education. At its peak, the Godeshapur hospital and medical school had the world's most extensive medical manuscript collection.

In 638 CE many books and manuscripts were burned by the Muslim Arab armies.


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

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

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

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