The History of Libraries

By Caryn B. Davis

I am a library geek. I admit it. I love the library. I think it started back in grade school with the bookmobile. I remember scouring a catalog of books, filling out the order form, and then waiting for delivery from a vehicle that looked like an ice cream truck but dispensed books instead. It always felt as if I were getting a great gift when Clifford the Big Red Dog, The Five Chinese Brothers, Ping, and Mike Mulligan and His

Steam Shovel finally arrived, and I was getting a gift – the gift of reading.

I realize the bookmobile is not exactly the same as the library where the books cost nothing to take out, but the bookmobile definitely contributed to my love of books and got me into the habit of reading. I have always been fascinated by the idea of a place where one can go to conduct research and borrow films and reading materials based on a system of honor, with the only requirement being the return of the items lent, and returned on time. I still go to the library on a weekly basis, and I am still entranced by this institution where knowledge is free and available to all.

The library is also important to the community. They are used as gathering spaces, art galleries, and lecture halls. They host after school programs for children and teens, art and craft classes, English classes, media labs, book signings, workshops, and on and on. They provide a respite from the cold and heat for the less fortunate  and a welcoming environment for the lonely and the elderly. So how did libraries come into being? And what does the future hold for these traditional bibliotecas now that the first “bookless” libraries have been established?

The first public library in the world was the Royal Library of Alexandria founded in the 3rd century B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt, by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general and successor to Alexander the Great. The library contained an estimated 400,000 papyrus scrolls transcribed from books found at fairs in Rhodes and Athens Greece, on ships that came into port, and through other sources. It was the job of the library staff to seek out and locate these volumes, translate them into Greek if they were not already, and copy them onto paper. In addition to the collection, the Royal Library was also a research center and had a dining room, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens, and lecture halls. It was very similar to the libraries of today and a precursor to college campuses. When the library caught on fire, (allegedly after Julius Caesar set some nearby ships ablaze, or during religious rioting, or when Emperor Aurelian’s troops invaded Alexandria, or all of the above), these ancient works were lost forever.

The Library of Congress is our “nation’s oldest federal cultural institution and the largest library in the world.” It was established in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill that not only transferred the seat of government from Philadelphia, PA, to Washington, D.C. but also included provisions for a reference library “containing such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress – and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein.” In 1814 British troops burned the Capitol Building where the new library was housed, destroying all of  its 3,000

contents. This event changed what the library was to become and how it was to be used.

Former President Thomas Jefferson had amassed a personal collection of books totaling 6,487 volumes on a variety of topics that included language, philosophy, science, and literature. He believed all subjects, not just those of policies and law, were invaluable to the American legislature and should be incorporated into its library. Congress appropriated $23,950 for his collection, which became the library’s foundation.

The Library of Congress spans three buildings and has more than 158 million items in 470 languages on approximately 838 miles of shelves. It includes books, maps, photographs, sheet music, manuscripts, legal materials, films, sound recordings, comic books, telephone directories, newspapers, scientific and technical information, presidential papers from 23 presidents, the Gutenberg Bible, one of  three in the world; a cuneiform tablet dating from 2040 B.C., the largest collection of  15th-century books in the Western Hemisphere,the largest rare-book collection in  North America, the world’s largest law library, boasting 2.9 million volumes; and much more.

While the purpose of this library first and foremost is to serve Congress by providing unbiased information on an expansive range of topics, its second mission is “to acquire, organize, preserve, secure, and sustain for the present and future use of Congress and the nation a comprehensive record of American history, creativity, and a universal collection of human knowledge.” Every year 1.6 million people visit the library where 3200 employees help members of Congress, the government, and the general public locate what they are looking for.

The State of Connecticut bears the distinction of having the oldest first publicly funded library in the United States, though there were others prior to the establishment of the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury that were private or subscription based, where members borrowed books for free, but paid dues to support the purchase of new ones.

Richard Smith, a prominent Salisbury native, offered to buy 200 books on his next voyage to London, England if enough citizens would finance the acquisition. Thirty-nine people agreed, and the Smith Library began in 1771. More and more books were donated over the next 100 years and eventually the free library was relocated to the Town Hall. Around 1890 Jonathan Scoville, another resident, bequeathed $12,000 to finance the construction of a new library which had a reading room with children’s corner, an auditorium with piano, stage, and balcony, and a kitchen and pantry. Today the library has over 30,000 items that include local history, genealogy, works of art, and books from the original collection.

The nation’s first bookless library opened last year in San Antonio, Texas. The

BiblioTech, also known as the Bexar County Digital Library, has traded all its printed matter for digital copies, making this $2.4 million, 4,000-square-foot space a book free zone. Patrons will no longer be able to browse among the familiar stacks of bookshelves. Instead, they will find rows of computers, laptops, and iPads. The “library” looks like a cross between an Internet café and an Apple store with a children’s room, study area, and coffee shop. E-books are available for downloading to personal e-readers like a Kindle, but e-readers can also be checked out for those who do not possess their own. The “card catalog” is accessed via a touch screen in which the library’s collection of 10,000 e-books is revealed.

At Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Florida, carrying heavy textbooks is a thing of the past. The school’s main library is completely digital. They are the first university in the United States to take this bold departure. Polytechnic only offers courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, so the philosophy behind this digital library is to better prepare their students for the high tech work force they will be entering through the practical application of accessing and organization digital information.

“The ability to read, absorb, manage, and search digital documents and conduct digital research are skills of growing importance in industry,” said Kathryn Miller, the school’s director of libraries in a article that appeared in The Guardian on August 29, 2014, written by Alison Flood.

The library currently has 135,000 e-books but has set aside funding to purchase more which happens automatically every time a book that the library does not own is viewed more than than two times.

One has to wonder what will be lost and will be gained from libraries becoming purely digital. Are people always going to want a physical book to curl up with in bed, or on the beach chair, or on a train or in the air? And what about magazines you thumb through at the hair salon or while waiting for the dentist or doctor? Is the digital version as satisfying? And what about a child’s first trip to the library where they peruse the shelves in search of a book, picking up one and then another, flipping through the pages, looking at the pictures to see which one speaks to them  and then proudly carrying the book to present to the librarian for check out?

Kathleen McCook, a “professor of librarianship” at the University of South Florida in Tampa offered this perspective as quoted in The Guardian on August 29, 2014. “Maybe it reflects the digital life today, but I don’t think in the long run it’s going to give people the same quality of experience,” Her concern is “that very quiet and intimate connection between people and the printed word could be lost. It’s just not going to give people the serendipitous experience of walking though shelves of books – a tremendous rite of passage.”

Certainly, time will tell.