The First Libraries

by Alexandra Janvey, Head Editor, INALJ Iowa

The First Libraries

AlexandraJanveyLibraries developed shortly after the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians, invented writing, which was around 3500 BC. Called cuneiform, this early form of writing involved engraving simple shapes onto clay tables. It was only natural that after societies began recording information, the need for storing and organizing that knowledge would follow. That is precisely how the first libraries began. There is evidence that societies began storing and organizing collections of clay tablets (or creating the first libraries) as early as 2700 BC. The Royal Palace of Ebla in northern Syria (circa 2300 BC) contained a room filled with about two thousand tablets, most of which were administrative records. Clay tablets have been found in several other locations including near Nippur in southern Mesopotamia, southeast of Ankara at Hattusas, and at the Borsippa Library in Babylonia, which was founded by King Hammurabi. The earliest founder of readily identifiable library is Tiglath-Pileser I, one of Assyria’s greatest rulers. Approximately one hundred works of the library’s complete holdings have been discovered at the Temple of Assur’s ruins.

One of the better-known libraries that existed during this time was the royal library at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. It was developed by King Ashurbanipal for the purpose of “royal contemplation” and was considered “the first systematically collected library in the ancient Near East” (Casson 9, 11). Ashurbanipal, who had a passion for learning and the arts, sent a large number of scholars and scribes great distances to retrieve materials on a variety of subjects for his library. Much like the later Library of Alexandria, the royal library of Nineveh was unique in the diverse assortment of materials it contained. In addition to the usual government records, the library of Nineveh contained materials covering law, medicine, science, magic, religion, and legends. There were more than 30,000 clay tablets organized into categories within two small rooms in the palace. Discovered by British and French archeologists in the 19th Century, remains of the library can be seen today at the British Museum in London and at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

It’s important to note that although it’s confirmed that libraries did exist during this time in ancient Egypt, little is known about them because so few papyrus scrolls used at the time have survived intact. This material became widely used in ancient Egypt because there were large amounts of papyrus plants surrounding the Nile River that could be made into a fine quality paper. However, it also proved to be a very fragile medium, burning easily, and crumbling with frequent use. Clay tablets were more durable, withstanding damage by fire and time. It is known, however, that libraries were considered important in ancient Egypt. For example, the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II founded a library in 1250 BC that was said to be “a place of healing for the soul” (Chowdhury et al. 2).

The first libraries in existence were not as accessible as they are in modern times. Logically, they couldn’t be when the majority of the population was not literate. These institutions were created out of necessity by rulers and began as simple storage centers for knowledge, often as a part of temples or schools. Literacy in ancient times was mainly limited to the professional class of scribes and sometimes the elite. Scribes had to undergo a great deal of training and practice to master the written form. After their training, scribes would copy distinguished or desired works by hand in order to build up their library collections. Another way that rulers acquired materials for libraries was through war. Libraries became increasingly accessible in later times, as populations, education, and literacy increased within society.


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• “Books Before Gutenberg.” Harry Ransom Center. The University of Texas at Austin. Web. 9 March. 2014.

• Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: YaleUniversity Press, 2002. E-book.

• Chowdhury, G.G, Paul F. Burton, David McMenemy, and Alan Poulter. Librarianship: An Introduction. London: Facet Publishing, 2008. Print.

• Learning About the World. “Ancient Mysteries (TV Documentary Series): The Lost Treasure of the Alexandria Library.” Online Documentary. YouTube. YouTube, 11 August. 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

• Lyons, Martyn. Books: A Living History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. Print.

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