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Early Libraries: 900s CE

Let's examine wide range of libraries emerging across Europe and Asia.

A wide range of specialty libraries were emerging in this period.


Song Dynasty Imperial Library

The Chinese government encouraged workers to consult the library, so library use increased.

From the Sui through the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), young civil servants sought opportunities to work at the library. Like other government positions, library positions were given based on imperial examinations rather than status. Families invested in private libraries to educator their children. This class became known as scholar-bureaucrats.

A curriculum was established by 115 CE for those studying for the examination. As it evolved, five studies were included: military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and Confucian classics. Since the process of studying for the examination was time-consuming, the candidates were generally land-owning gentry. Tutors were often hired costing additional expense.

The images shows students taking the examination.

exam wikimedia commons pd

Book Theft

Librarians of the Song (Sung) dynasty had a unique way to discourage thief. According to Lerner (1999), book copies were made on special paper making stolen copies easy to recognize.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read De Weerdt, Hilde Godelieve Dominique (Winter 2007). The discourse of loss in Song dynasty private and imperial book collection. Library Trends, 55(3), 404-420.

Bibliographies & Collections

Bibliographies are an excellent way to gain insights into library collections of a particular time period.

In 938 CE, Ibn al-Nadim, published a bibliography intended to be an index of all books written in the Arabic language. Including works of both Arabs and non-Arabs, the Fihrist provides a wonderful glimpse at the wide range of materials available in libraries at that time. Unfortunately, many of the books listed are no longer in existence. Books are categorized into Islamic subjects, holy scriptures, grammar, history, poetry, theology, law, philosophy and secular sciences, legends, doctrines of other religions, and alchemy.

Al-Muqaddasi (945-1000 CE) made a pilgrimage to study geography. Observations from his journeys provide insights into the libraries of the time period.

The image below shows the Buyid dynasty (also known as Buwayhid) in 970 CE.

Buwayhid Wikimedia Commons PD

Imperial Library
Shiraz, Iran

During the Buwayhid empire (945-1055 CE), mosques, palaces, and libraries were built. Adhud al-Daula established a library that was described by al-Muqaddasi as

"a complex of buildings surrounded by gardens with lakes and waterways. The buildings were topped with domes, and comprised an upper and a lower story with a total, according to the chief official, of 360 rooms... In each department, catalogues were placed on a shelf... the rooms were furnished with carpets..."

al-Muqaddasi also stated that

"the repository of the books was separate, and in charge of it a librarian, a supervisor, a keeper of the keys, an overseer from among the people of good reput in the town; and there was no a single book published in a branch of the sciences that he did not gather together there. It consists of a long oblong gallery with rooms on every side. He had attached to the walls of the room bookcases six feet in height, three cubits long, and with shelves. O the bookcases are doors that come down from above, and the books are arranged on shelves. For every subject there is a bookcase, or bookcases, and catalogues in which as the names of the books. The gallery was carpeted with rugs of the most surpassing excellence from Abbadan, and a screen fastened to the door. Doorkeepers were appointed over the entrance and no one my enter unless he be distinguished." (365).

The historian Yaqut also described the library by stating

"the library consists of one large vaulted room, annexed to which are storerooms. The prince had made along the large room the store chambers, scaffoldings about the height of a man, three yards wide, of decorated wood which have shelves from top to bottom; the books are arranged on the shelves and for every branch of learning there are separate scaffolds. There are also catalogues in which all the titles of the books are entered."

Ramhurmuz, Iran

Al-Muqaddasi described the library

"like that in al-Basra, and in fact both institutions were entirely established by Ibn Sawwar. A fee is charted in both of them for anyone who resorts there, obligatory for reading and for copying. However, the library of al-Basra is bigger, more frequented, and has more books; in this one also there is always a teacher instructing in theology according to the school of the Mutazilites." (337)

Al-Hakam II Royal Library
Cordoba, Spain

Salon Rico Wikimedia Commons by Justojosemm and CordoapediaDuring his reign Al-Hakam II (915-976) constructed 3,000 mosques, 300 public baths, palaces, and a huge library containing 400,000 to a million volumes. Although many claim this to be an exaggeration.

The image on the right shows the Al Madinah Azahara completed by Al-Hakam.

He sent representatives to purchase first edition books from the Muslim east. He also spearheaded an effort to translate texts into Arabic. Unfortunately, Almansur destroyed much of the library around 976. All books related to ancient science were destroyed in the ultra-orthodox movement.

Creating libraries was a well-documented activity in Cordoba. In an often-told story originally written by historian Al-Makkari:

"I resided once in Cordoba for some time, where I used to attend the book-market every day, in the hope of meeting with a certain work which I was anxious to procure. This I had done for a considerable time, when on a certain day, I happened to find the object of my search, a beautiful copy, elegantly written and illustrated with a very fine commentary. I immediately bid for it, and went  on increasing my bid, but to my great disappointment, I was always outbid by the crier (auctioneer), although the price was far superior than the value of the book. Surprised at this I went to the crier, and asked him to show me the individual who had thus outbid me for the book to a sum far beyond its real value, when he pointed out to me a man of high rank, to whom, on approaching, I said, 'May God exalt you O doctor (faqih, lit. scholar), if you desire this book I will relinquish it, for through our mutual bidding its price has risen far above its real value.' He replied, 'I am neither learned nor do I know what the contents of the book are, but I have just established a library, and cost what it may, I shall make it one of the most notable things in my town. There is an empty space there which this book will just fill. As it is beautifully written and tastefully bound I am pleased with it, and I don't care what it costs, for God has given me an immense income.'" (Mackensen, Bukhash & Inayatullah, 1938).

Halls of Science

Between the 8th and 10th centuries many Halls of Science or dar al-ilm were established. These public libraries were supported by Islamic sects and focused on dissemination of secular knowledge. According to Sardir (1991),

"considerable thought was given to their design, layout and architecture to ensure that the public had easy access to books and appropriate facilities to study and copy manuscripts in the library. Most of these libraries, such as those of Shiraz, Cairo and Corduba, were housed in specially designed buildings of their own. They had numerous rooms for specific purposes: galleries with shelves in which books were kept, reading rooms where visitors could comfortably sit to read books, rooms for public lectures and debates, and in some cases, rooms for musical entertainment. All the rooms were richly and comfortably fitted and the floors were covered with beautiful carpets and mats. Heavy curtains covering windows and rooms created a pleasant atmosphere and maintained the rooms at an appropriate temperature. "

Hall of Science - Dar al-'ilm
Mosul, Iraq

Founded by Ibn Hamdan, the collection included books on a wide range of subjects. The library was open to the public and scholars were provided food and drink in addition to writing materials.

Hall of Science - Dar al-'ilm
Baghdad, Iraq

Around 996 CE Sabus ibn Ardasir founded a library housing 10,400 volumes. The collection focused on religious books, but also included philosophy and science. Donations were accepted, but only quality materials were included in the collection. Considered a cultural center, scholars, poets, and musicians came to study and share ideas.

House of Knowledge - Dar al-hikma

Established in 1004 or 1005 by al-Hakim, the library was considered by some to be a wonder of the world. The collection contained works on many subjects and attracted scholars from around the world. Education was a priority and Hakim provided paper, pens, ink, and inkstands for free to scholars and students.

Khazain al-Qusu Library
Cairo, Egypt

Founded by Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah (932-975 CE), the forty room library contained over 1.6 million books and used a sophisticated system of classification to increase access. Al-Muizz's tolerance of all religions was reflected in his collection. In 953, al-Muizz commissioned the invention of the first fountain pen. He sought a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes.


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

Al-Muqaddasi (translated by Basil Anthony Collins, 2001). The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions. Garnet Publishing. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=LBO1PijX1qsC

Mackensen, Ruth Stellhorn, Bukhash, Khuda & Inayatullah, Shaikh (1938). Bibliophilism in medieval Islam. Islamic Culture, 12(2), 154-69.

Stam, David (2001) (ed). International Dictionary of Library Histories. Taylor & Francis.

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