The emergence of the library in the distant past was inevitably associated with the development of urban centers, an educated administrative class and authoritarian leadership, and a strong sense of a cultural heritage and a body of knowledge worth preserving.
This development was evident in Babylonia in the 21st century B.C. when clay tablets were the format for recording information. Ramses III, circa 1200 B.C., like many Egyptian pharaohs, had an extensive temple library. The extensively cataloged library of Assurbanipal in Ninevah in the 7th century B.C.was widely known and a public library was established in Greece in 330 B.C. to preserve Greek drama. The most famous library of antiquity was Alexandria which had two royal libraries, one kept in a temple of Zeus and the other in a museum; at their maximum, including duplicates, the libraries held circa 7,000,000 rolls. The library at Pergamum in what is now modern Turkey rivaled Alexandria and specialized in the use of parchment, which takes its name from the city. Scholarship and learning were key components of all the ancient libraries.
Roman and Medieval Period
The Roman Empire gathered library collections based on their conquests in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria. Wealthy Romans collected private libraries; however, most of these collections were destroyed during the fall of the Roman Empire. In the middle ages, it was primarily the insular world of Western monasteries that secretively preserved the written record while the Arabs and Byzantines developed fine libraries during this period.
With the emergence of the Renaissance and the enormous wealth of the Catholic Church, both the European aristocracy and the Vatican formed fine libraries. As the university system developed the great university libraries of Bologna, Prague, Oxford and Heidelberg were opened in the 14th century.
In the 18th and 19th centuries libraries began to move from the preservation and conservation function to one of a circulating collection and an educational purpose. These developments coincided with the development of democracy and heightened awareness of the individual and individual rights. American libraries played a crucial role in this organizational and philosophical shift and were greatly supported by early American political leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The American Library Association was formed in 1876 and raised the level of library methods and helped define and raise the professional standards of librarians.
In the late 19th century Andrew Carnegie's philanthropic efforts on behalf of public libraries further cultivated the role of libraries in the development of an informed and educated general public and developed a public library infrastructure in the United States and Great Britain that gained enormous public support.
The modern library provides patrons with access to books, serials and other material. Libraries are staffed by professional librarians who have graduated from accredited library schools. In Canada a professional librarian usually has a graduate degree in librarianship. Core services in public libraries have been greatly expanded and libraries have quickly mastered new technological developments to store more information and to search indexes and catalogs. Electronic networks now provide immediate access to numerous library collections. University and research libraries work to meet enormous demands for increasingly specialized information and all libraries are faced with the problem of the preservation of pulp-based paper that decays after a few decades. The principles of intellectual freedom and access to information remain fundamental to all libraries.
The need for popular and political support is essential for all libraries as a basis for on-going funding. Indeed, it is worth noting that all major surveys that provide quality of life rating (including those conducted by the United Nations and the World Bank) recognize and measure the availability of library services as major indicators of a vibrant cultural and, hence, as a social and economic indicator of a high quality of life.
Edward Edwards' Memoirs of Libraries (2 vol., 1859. repr. 1964) and Libraries and Founders of Libraries (1865, repr. 1968).
E.A. Savages' The Story of Libraries and Book-Collecting (1909, repr. 1969).
Thelman Eaton, ed. Contributions to American Library History (1962).
Raymond Irwin's Origins of the English Library (1958, repr. 1981).
E.D. Johnson's History of Libraries in the Western World (2d ed. 1970).
M.H. Harris' History of Libraries in the Western World (1984).
K. Schottenloher's Books and the Western World (1989)