Libraries Research Paper

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Libraries contribute significantly to the advancement of civilization. Since humans began to record ideas and information for later recall, collections of records kept throughout the world for five thousand years, consisting of a few items or millions, have been important in preserving the memory of society. Although each period and locality is distinct, many issues of record keeping, such as preservation and classification, are the same.

Libraries are collections of graphic records, organized for accessibility and maintained for the benefit of individuals in the community they serve. Libraries generally consist of portable physical entities (books) made of durable materials that contain written and artistic notations of reasonable length. The standard unit in libraries has been called the “generic book” because through the millennia it has utilized various materials—bones, skins, clay, bamboo, papyrus, paper, magnetic tapes, and plastic—and taken many forms—tablets, rolls, codices, reels, and disks. When collections consist primarily of records of institutions and individuals that are organically related— that is, they share a common creator, subject or purpose, as opposed to isolated, random artifacts— and maintained for access because of their continuing value, they are referred to as archives. When they consist of creative texts dealing with cultural and historical themes, they are called libraries.

After human beings began to speak, the need arose to preserve orally transmitted information. Although visible marks of any kind could record some ideas, in order to transmit information reliably from one generation to another and ultimately from one culture and era to another, a system needed to be developed whereby those marks would be conventional enough to convey complex ideas over time—that is, the marks needed to be somewhat standardized in order to be understood by others. After several centuries of experimentation with pictographic symbols and multishaped tokens and their representations, writing appeared in both Mesopotamia and Egypt sometime before about 3000 BCE.

Ancient Libraries

Early collections of a few clay tablets or papyrus rolls were likely to be primarily archival repositories, but within centuries, books that included religious, historical, literary, and scientific texts appeared and true libraries began, often in conjunction with archives. Many early library collections were housed in temples, where scribes produced and maintained them. These temple libraries were established throughout the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt, India, and China. Caretakers of these collections were faced with problems of preservation, classification, and physical arrangement.

Among the oldest library archives is the collection at Ebla, a city in northwestern Syria dating to at least the middle of the third millennium BCE, which contained more than fifteen thousand tablets, including a variety of archival records, as well as linguistic reference works, chronologies, gazetteers, manuals dealing with the physical world, and religious and literary works. Similar repositories existed at Mari in northwestern Iraq and Boghazkoy in modern Turkey. Though the physical evidence is not as abundant in Egypt, archival collections also appeared there during this period, according to inscriptions on temple walls and surviving scrolls. While small collections were found throughout the Fertile Crescent, the library of the Assyrian Assurbanipal reached its peak in Nineveh in northern Iraq in the seventh century BCE. Although the library was buried in the destruction of the Babylonians in 612 BCE, the British excavated it in the nineteenth century and much of the collection is now in the British Museum.

Evidence exists that the Mycenaean civilization of the late second century BCE was the heir of developing library processes and technology, but it was only after about 600 BCE that Greek libraries and archival repositories become common. Focusing on epics composed much earlier, by the sixth century BCE the movement toward wider reading and collecting was well underway. In the late fourth century BCE, Hellenic civilization promoted broader inquiry and utilization of the written word, which resulted in a rising volume of both scholarly and popular works. The great Alexandrian Library in Egypt, founded about 300 BCE, became a repository for materials from all over the known world and was a center for scholarship and original research. Along with smaller libraries at Pergamon and Athens, it would continue these functions for several centuries, until its decline in the fourth to seventh centuries CE.

As heir to the Greek tradition, Rome recognized the value of the library, and through confiscated books and new copying began to build libraries of its own. The emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Vespasian, Trajan, and Hadrian established libraries in Rome in the first and second centuries CE. These collections at Rome, which typically contained separate rooms for Greek and Latin books, and similar ones in the provinces, were housed in temple-like buildings and later in public baths. They were widely used and considered symbols of civilization.

During the early centuries of the current era, the form of the book changed from the scroll (or roll) to the codex, the form of book we know today. This change in format enabled texts of greater length to be bound together as a unit, enhancing portability and ease of use. During this period, recognized collections of writings developed, including major works of mythology, history, philosophy, and religion. (For example, the Bible of the Christians, consisting of approximately sixty-six books, written over a period of more than a millennium, assumed its form during this period and was itself a kind of library.) Christian libraries, such as the one at Caesarea in Palestine (c. 200–c. 800), provided major repositories for theological and historical writings.

The weakening of central imperial authority and barbarian threats, as well as the rise of organized Christianity and the early monastic movement, brought challenges and changes to the cultural environment of the late Roman Empire. The decentralization of control and influence encouraged local manifestations of governmental and church institutions, including libraries, which spread to the farthest reaches of the empire. After about 600, when in the Western portion of the empire the church had assumed many of the stabilizing institutions of society, scholarly efforts centered largely on preserving old texts and keeping existing learning alive by writing texts. Libraries continued to flourish at Constantinople in patriarchal and academic libraries until the fifteenth century.

In Asia, books and libraries grew in significance in the period of antiquity. The Aryans, who brought Vedic traditions to South Asia about 1500 BCE, supplanted the Harappan culture already established in the Indus Valley. They in turn provided the environment for the rise of Jainism and Buddhism in the sixth century BCE—each religious tradition also developed its own canon of religious writings. Like Judaism and Christianity, which took root in the centuries spanning the divide of the eras BCE and CE, Jainism and Buddhism had significant written literature. Their extensive texts joined a developing archival system to produce library collections maintained by individual societies. The experience of the Han dynasty in China (206 BCE–220 CE) with the expansion of Buddhism was in some ways similar to the challenge posed to the later Roman Empire by the expansion of Christianity with respect to the consolidation of governmental authority and the preservation of cultural heritage. In particular, the Han dynasty experienced the proliferation of Buddhist texts, sometimes without official sanction. Meanwhile, Han emperors encouraged the compilation and editing of Confucian writings and a variety of other texts, including those in the arts and sciences, as well as the maintenance of such collections. The invention of paper and the extensive use of block printing in this period also expanded the production of books and increased the number of collections available to governmental and cultural institutions, and to individuals. These works were frequently copied and collections were maintained in monasteries and other protected sites. The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang in Chinese Turkestan housed one such collection, which had been developed about 1035 and was discovered as recently as 1907. This famous cache of texts was collected in the years prior to the cave being sealed, about 1035, which invaders threatened. It was discovered by the British archaeologist Aurel Stein and was dispersed to several repositories in Asia and Europe. Eventually massive collections of these works were reproduced by Chinese imperial authorities for access and for preservation. Two major hand-written encyclopedias were produced—one between 1403 and 1408 (more than eleven thousand volumes) and another between 1736 and 1795 (thirty-six thousand volumes). The latter was produced in seven copies of which two are still largely extant. (The works not selected for inclusion were subsequently lost to succeeding generations.) The writings of Confucius, Buddha, and their followers were brought to Japan and Korea in the sixth and seventh centuries CE, and schools, books, and libraries soon followed.

Medieval Libraries

While the arts of publishing flourished in Asia and monks and court officials preserved materials as best they could in Europe, the rise of Islam, beginning in the seventh century, formed a link between East and West through its growing network of scholarship and commerce. The librarians and bibliographers of this period began to promote a cross-pollination of cultures, languages, and traditions.

As Muslims translated Greek and Latin manuscripts into Arabic and produced their own literature, they also soon introduced papermaking from China across their domain to Andalusian Spain. By the ninth and tenth centuries major urban centers like Baghdad and Cairo enjoyed numerous libraries—many of which were open to the public—that supported institutions of learning culture such as schools, mosques, and palaces. By searching existing collections and employing copyists and binders, Caliph al-Hakim II (961–976), for example, built an extraordinary library in Cordoba with about 400,000 volumes—the catalogue itself consumed forty-four volumes. Some scholars suggest that the intellectual activity in the great mosque in Cordoba, which attracted scholars and students from across the Near East and Western Europe, served as a catalyst for the establishment of new universities and the transmission of important knowledge from East to West—of papermaking, for example. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and afterward, warfare from within the Islamic regions and from invaders resulted in the decline and loss of many of the great collections. In many cases only individual items have survived. The barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, including Rome itself, in the fifth and sixth centuries, had different results in the East and the West. In the region governed by Constantinople (Byzantium, today Istanbul) the institutions of state and church, drawing on Greek cultural foundations, continued relatively intact until the coming of the Persian and Islamic conflicts from the middle of the first millennium. Substantial libraries remained open in the capital and smaller ones in major cities until the Fourth Crusade (1204) and the capitulation to the Turks in 1453. Though libraries were significant in the early Eastern Empire, they had declined considerably by its end. In contrast, in the early medieval period (600–800) libraries in Western Europe suffered from the fragmentation of the Roman Empire that brought chaos and instability.

In the West, monastic libraries, stimulated generally by the growth of the Benedictine order and the missionary activity of Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks, began to flourish widely, so that by the time of Charlemagne (c. 742–814) the preservation of remaining classical manuscripts and current writing was assured. Most of these libraries contained fewer than several hundred volumes. Cathedral libraries, which supported schools and scriptoria, grew slowly and began to serve clergy and civil servants not associated with a cloister. Some of these schools, such as the one in Paris, were antecedents of universities that appeared in the twelfth century; others, such as Chartres and York, were not. Later, other orders joined in copying activities.

The coming of the first Western European universities resulted in the formation of libraries with broader responsibilities than those of monasteries and archival repositories. Beginning with the early models of Padua, Salerno, Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, universities proliferated in Europe until, by the sixteenth century, they had become symbols of regional pride. Most of these institutions had central libraries, often built up by donations and under the custody of one of the masters. (The Bodleian Library at Oxford and the library of Trinity College, Dublin, date from the early seventeenth century.) At Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, individual colleges maintained separate and independent collections that only later, if ever, were integrated into the general collection.

Until the coming of moveable-type printing in the fifteenth century, books and archives were not always easily distinguished and may have been housed together. Within fifty years of the appearance of the moveable-type printing that Johannes Gutenberg developed about 1450, the presses of Europe increased production from a trickle to a flood of new scholarship and creative works, as well as of more accessible editions of the classic works from the ancient and medieval periods. These publications, possibly 100,000 titles by 1550, were both scholarly and popular works and contributed to creating and preserving the new ideas introduced by the Renaissance. While elite collectors would prefer manuscripts and lavishly illustrated volumes for some time to come, the less expensive and more portable printed books found an enthusiastic market—for example, in libraries and with collectors who would ultimately be benefactors of libraries.

Early Modern Libraries

This new category of book collectors who established personal libraries included members of the noble and upper classes, both those with hereditary titles and those who had accumulated wealth through commerce, manufacturing, and banking. They typified the enthusiastic response of the human spirit to the new ideas and knowledge that encouraged the building of libraries. Libraries became the possession not only of the privileged segments of society, but also, eventually, of the middle classes.

Early examples of this kind of princely library include that of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary (1440–1490), whose magnificent collection was dispersed by the invading Turks in the early sixteenth century. The Medici family in Florence exemplifies the merchant class; among the Medici projects was its great library, now the Laurentian Library, one of the first modern libraries to have its own building (1571). Other wealthy families competed in building library and art collections that brought them esteem. The Papal library at the Vatican, which dates its modern founding to Nicholas V and Sixtus IV in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is another good example. As books became more appealing as collectors’ items, the gentleman’s library became a trademark of the social class. Some of these collections grew into their own institutions; others merged through sale or bequest into other collections.

In the sixteenth century, libraries were increasingly attainable by the middle class through the proliferation of popular printed reading material. Books became cheaper and more widely available, and thus were collected by more people—a trend that has accelerated to the present. Political, religious, and social groups all tried to exploit the potential for promoting their messages; the Reformation and the civil conflicts accompanying it unleashed the power of political pamphlets and books. The Lutheran Reformers promoted education and reading as a public good that demanded public support, which made libraries even more significant. The Jesuits likewise considered a serious education, requiring books and libraries, to be essential in promoting the Catholic faith. Beginning in the early eighteenth century the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) published and distributed Protestant religious and educational materials throughout the British Empire, and through the influence of the Reverend Thomas Bray (1656–1730) they established several kinds of libraries for popular and clergy use, notably in England and the British colonies in America.

The growth of nationalism and colonialism from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries supported the spread of books and libraries. The voyages of the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and British explorers yielded journals, maps, and specimens that resulted in further research and study and new books to record new ideas. Royal and national libraries, as well as libraries of societies and other institutions, collected this material, which enriched their museums and laboratories as well as their libraries. The colonialism that often followed nationalistic adventuring provided opportunities for those with an interest in books and libraries to press for translation work, literacy, education, and cultural integration. In Asia and Latin America and then later in Africa, agencies in the colonizing nation established schools and libraries as desirable institutions in their nation’s colonies abroad. Like the SPG, the Jesuit missionaries provided books and libraries for the colleges they established in China, Japan, India, Mexico, Peru, and elsewhere.

As they profited from their new ventures, royal houses and noble families began to assemble library collections that served as treasure houses of books. Beyond the local nobility and regional princes, the sovereigns of the royal houses began to consolidate their bibliographical holdings so that libraries were not dispersed periodically. Thus began the royal and ducal libraries in Europe that frequently merged into royal libraries for the nation and, ultimately, national libraries. These institutions, such as those in France, Prussia, Austria, Spain, and Sweden, were destined to become some of the great national libraries of the eighteenth century and beyond. They would be joined by comparable institutions such as the British Museum-Library (now British Library) in 1753, the U.S. Library of Congress in 1800, and the Russian State Library and the National Library of China in the twentieth century. These libraries, like those of other nations, continue to hold a place of honor and responsibility as repositories of the national cultural record. They perform a functional as well as a symbolic role because they frequently lead in organizing library activities for the nations they represent.

Libraries Since the Enlightenment

The history of libraries since the Enlightenment includes not only the proliferation of national, private, and university libraries, but also the extension of access to libraries by the broader citizenry, through public and school libraries. Professionalization—first among academic librarians in Europe and then among public librarians in North America—became increasingly important. Among the issues that concerned the profession of librarianship were diversification of clientele, specialization in resources, and management of technological change.

University and college libraries continued to multiply in Europe and North America during the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century, the growth peaking only in the late twentieth century when fewer completely new academic institutions were created. As democratic movements in education propelled more students toward higher education, the libraries of collegiate institutions had to keep pace with new subject matter, new curriculum emphases, new teaching methods, new technologies, and fresh challenges in general. The mechanization of printing in the mid-nineteenth century further increased the production of books and journals of all kinds. Beginning in Germany and spreading to the North Atlantic community and beyond, the growth of graduate and professional programs leading to advanced degrees stimulated more comprehensive collections of research materials, which in turn stimulated the increased publication of books, reports, and journals. The great American university research libraries, such as those at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and their public counterparts at Michigan, Illinois, California at Berkeley, and elsewhere, made their advances at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and they have continued to grow to the present. The rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century extended the possibilities for accumulating wealth. Some entrepreneurs built and supported private libraries and art collections, many of which eventually became units of the great research libraries. Some, mostly in the United States, have retained their independent status, such as the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. These unique research libraries are monuments to the efforts and resources of individuals.

Along with existing national libraries, private libraries, and university libraries, social libraries made an appearance in the eighteenth century. Most common in Northern Europe and North America, they focused on a carefully selected collection that served the purposeful leisure reading of a homogeneous body of readers. Frequently these libraries required membership and dues and were open only to those who met certain qualifications. An example of this was the Library Company of Philadelphia (1731), which issued shares to a limited number of persons, who thereby underwrote the support of the collection that was available to all members. Building on a few earlier models and a long informal tradition of popular literature, these libraries were sometimes sponsored by benefactors, societies, or associations. Peaking in number and popularity in the middle of the nineteenth century, they served as a kind of transition between libraries for the elites and the public library movement that followed. Variations in names and missions are reflected in the different forms that they assumed, such as athenaeums, lyceums, literary societies, and mercantile libraries, to name a few of the more common types. They differed from circulating libraries, which were primarily commercial lending operations for profit.

Though there are isolated early examples of public funds committed to community libraries, public libraries—that is, tax-supported libraries serving the general public—made their appearance in the mid-nineteenth century, initially in Great Britain and the United States. The growth of educational opportunities, the expansion of popular reading material, the pressure for democratic institutions, pride in local cultural institutions, and philanthropy—all played a part in bringing this movement together at mid century. In Great Britain the Public Libraries Act of 1850 permitted local municipalities to gain the approval of tax ratepayers to support a library (library provision became compulsory in 1964); major public libraries were created in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester. In the United States, on a state-by-state basis, beginning with New Hampshire and other New England states from 1849 to 1854, taxing authority to permit the establishment of public libraries was approved. The Boston Public Library, which opened in 1854 under this legislation, became a model of what was possible, and in the next century the idea spread from New England to the whole United States. The large city public libraries, such as those in Boston, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit, joined the older idea of the municipal reference library, common in Northern Europe, with the popular reading room of the social library.

With the establishment of the American Library Association in 1876 and its British counterpart a year later, the new public libraries began to organize on a national and state basis to ensure that appropriate legislation was passed to support them through local taxation, and state and national support. The idea spread throughout Europe and to the nations touched by European culture. In most countries public libraries became an agency of the national, provincial, or state government, whereas in the United States they are locally authorized and maintained, even if they enjoy some state or federal support and are often under the general supervision of a state library commission or a state library. The modern library movement in North America and Western Europe, embracing various types of libraries, turned its attention to the education of librarians and to the issues that librarians faced in managing their enlarging collections, such as cataloging and classification and other matters relating to processing of materials, as well as to service to the public through the provision of reference works and other information services. Melvil Dewey (1851–1931) was an influential American librarian in this formative process.

Public libraries have frequently operated in conjunction with the public school system and may rightfully claim that they are institutions of continuing education for the citizenry. Because a public library serves the community interest with public funds, its role has been debated for the past two centuries. Some have seen its collections and services as a force for social advancement and cultural improvement, whereas others have seen public libraries as enforcers of the conformity that tends to restrict resources to those who represent the mainstream culture.

School libraries, while relative latecomers as a distinct entity, have their roots in small schoolroom collections. They found their earliest expression in secondary (or high) schools that became more common in the late nineteenth century in North America and Europe.

Cooperation between children’s services in public libraries and school libraries has received much discussion, with some arguing that school libraries should focus on curriculum-related material and public libraries on general and leisure reading. Emphasis on the values of reading and the intellectual stimulation that it brings has benefited both approaches to children and youth. Standards for school libraries (or the lack thereof) adopted by governmental bodies have determined the course of school libraries, so that in some regions they are taken more seriously than in others.

Finally, there are “special” collections, which include governmental, business, association, museum, and subject-specific libraries. Though there are ancient examples of these kinds of collections, frequently integrated with archival repositories, they have proliferated since the beginning of the twentieth century. (The National Library of Medicine in Washington, D.C., is an example.) These libraries increasingly network with one another, using the latest information formats and technology. In the United States, networks are supported by the Special Libraries Association, founded in 1909, and similar bodies exist in other industrialized countries.

The Globalization of Libraries

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, efforts to unify the library profession began in the United States and Great Britain and then spread to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe and to societies under their cultural influence. National library associations came into being—some representing all types of libraries and others focusing on special types. During this period (1875–1925) world’s fairs and convocations on both sides of the Atlantic provided opportunities for librarians from various countries to gather to discuss common practices, problems, and challenges, including cooperation and the use of newer technologies. The beginning of what would be the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) in 1927, following an international conference in Rome, brought library leaders together and led to the promise of cooperation in matters of mutual interest, such as cataloging standards, interlibrary borrowing and lending, access to materials, disaster relief, and the stimulation of library development.

As the tensions of World War II, the Cold War, the independence struggles of the 1960s, and the post-Soviet period overshadowed national and local issues, international linkages and networking proved significant in preserving communication among librarians throughout the world. Cooperation with UNESCO, the major national libraries of the world, and the leading library associations enabled IFLA to become an effective forum for global librarianship. Today nearly every nation is represented in the several thousands of associations and institutions whose members attend annual conferences that convene around the world. The principal national libraries along with other major research libraries contribute significant resources and leadership to international cooperation initiatives.

Beginning about the time of World War II the new discipline of information science became important for libraries and librarianship. This field sought to study the properties of information—its creation, organization, use, preservation, and effects. In the last decades of the twentieth century, information technology— including digital catalogs, digital libraries, and the World Wide Web—became commonplace in the libraries of the industrialized world.

Thus, as the twentieth-first century begins, librarians everywhere are bound more closely than ever through their associations and electronic technologies and are better able to provide universal service to their patrons. The role of libraries as depositories of physical materials has broadened to connect users with a variety of information formats. Although libraries span the spectrum from the largest national institutions to the smallest village collections—from specialized research materials to the most popular items to read, view, or hear—for millions of patrons around the world, they still serve as intermediaries between the creators and the consumers of ideas and information.


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