The earliest known library was a collection of clay tablets in Babylonia in the 21st cent. B.C. Ancient Egyptian temple libraries are known through the Greek writers. Diodorus Siculus describes the library of Ramses III, c.1200 B.C. The extensively cataloged library of Assurbanipal (d. 626? B.C.) in Nineveh was the most noted before that at Alexandria. The temple at Jerusalem contained a sacred library. The first public library in Greece was established in 330 B.C., in order to preserve accurate examples of the work of the great dramatists. The most famous libraries of antiquity were those of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I, which contained some 700,000 Greek scrolls. The library at Pergamum, founded or expanded by Eumenes II, rivaled those at Alexandria.
The first Roman libraries were brought from Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria as a result of conquests in the 1st and 2d cent. B.C. Caius Asinius Pollio established (c.40 B.C.) the first public library in Rome, but the great public libraries of the Roman Empire were the Octavian (destroyed A.D. 80) and the Palatine (destroyed c.A.D. 190) and the more important Ulpian library, founded during the reign of Trajan. In addition to these public collections, there were many fine private libraries by the time the Roman Republic was ended in 27 B.C. Of these there remain only fragments of one at Herculaneum.
The early Christian libraries were in monasteries; the Benedictines amassed a fine collection at Monte Cassino. The Romans had brought book collections to the British Isles, but important early monastic libraries were founded in York, Wearmouth, Canterbury, and elsewhere in England and Ireland by Anglo-Saxon monks. Some of the finest manuscript illumination was produced in these libraries. On the Continent, St. Columban and other missionaries founded monastic libraries in the 6th cent. Most of the ancient Greek and Latin texts that have survived until modern times were preserved in medieval European monastery libraries.
The Arabs in the 9th to 15th cent. collected and preserved many libraries, and the Jews and the Byzantines also developed fine libraries during the medieval period. In the 14th and 15th cent. Charles V of France, Lorenzo de' Medici, and Frederick, duke of Urbino, all formed fine libraries; part of the Urbino library is now in the Vatican Library. In the 15th cent. the Vatican Library, the oldest public library in Europe, was formed. In 1475, Platina, as its first librarian, made a catalog that included 2,527 volumes. In 1257 the Sorbonne library at Paris was founded, and in 1525 the erection of the Laurentian Library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, was begun. Many of the great university libraries (e.g., Bologna, Prague, Oxford, and Heidelberg) were opened in the 14th cent.
In the United States a circulating library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, was chartered in 1732 on the initiative of Benjamin Franklin. A public library had, however, been opened in Boston as early as 1653 (see Boston Public Library). Other early subscription libraries included the Boston Athenæum, the New York Society Library, and the Charleston (S.C.) Library Society. In 1833 the first tax-supported library in the country opened at Peterborough, N.H. The American Library Association was formed in 1876, and this organization spurred improvements in library methods and in the training of librarians.
Libraries in the United States and Great Britain benefited greatly from the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, who gave more than $65 million for public library buildings in the United States alone and strengthened local interest by making the grants contingent upon public support. Among the innovations of the late 19th cent. were free public access to books (involving elaborate classification schemes) and branch libraries or deposit stations for books in many parts of cities; in the early 20th cent. traveling libraries, or "bookmobiles," began to take books to readers in rural or outlying areas. By the end of the 20th cent., the digital revolution had resulted in many resources being available to library patrons in electronic formats that could be accessed directly from home or work. In 2009, for example, the European Union (EU) launched a digital library containing tens of thousands of EU documents dating back nearly 60 years; materials in 23 languages were made available to the public free of charge.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.