History of Libraries in Ancient Times: How Libraries Were Used In The Early Ages

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History of Libraries in Ancient Times: How Libraries Were Used In The Early Ages

Libraries in ancient times had significant importance. Urge to seek knowledge remained always been a constant priority among various ethnic groups and tribes. So, This urge to gain knowledge paved the way to establish knowledge centers, which were generally named Liberties. In these libraries, researchers and scholars used to visit and quench their thirst for knowledge.

The Origins of Early Libraries

Pliny the Elder (Fossilis 10.96) This famous quote is the earliest recorded reference to a library in history and is generally considered to be the first recorded library to be open to the public: “(Books) were common things, even in the cities, at the time of Democritus.”

More than 2,000 years later it is perhaps not surprising that students were reluctant to invest precious time and money into such a venture. Library patronage was largely a private affair, and scholars were unwilling to have their very best books at the disposal of everyone who could afford to pay. Libraries were limited by the size of the patron’s collection.

The Role of Librarians in Ancient Times

Much like today, libraries contained many different items from books to scrolls and clay tablets. In ancient times books were very rare and the chance of having a complete copy of the Greek Bible was a real rarity. Librarians did, however, play a vital role in being able to share and acquire knowledge, and if in need, they would travel from library to library to find a copy of their requested materials.

Isolated Locations and Physical Threats: The importance of Librarians

While reading in public would be out of the question for most of us. Small libraries were common in the Roman Empire as many homes had one. While of course the library would be locked, readers could still use the physical space and the books they desired would be available for borrowing.

How the Library System Worked

Traditionally, libraries in ancient times were arranged in a pyramid shape. Because the goal of such a structure was to ensure that everyone had a seat at the table with a view of the actual book to be used. To this day, the structure of the library stacks remains largely unchanged. Often times a patron of a library would be admitted to the library by walking up one of three staircases. Staircases led to the various stacks of books located on the outside walls. While the lower-level books were meant for scholars with less of a need to physically handle large volumes of books.

The End of the Athenian Library

Some believe that the library of Alexandria was built on the same site as an older library. The earliest buildings on the site were commissioned by Phereclus, a Greek Admiral, and date back to the 4th century BC. Archaeologists uncovered the only complete copies of Plato’s works written by Aristotle and the world’s oldest illustrated Bible from the 3rd century BC.

The Library of Alexandria housed the knowledge of the ancient world. This is how it was described:

The archaeological site of Alexandria in Egypt is home to one of the world’s greatest libraries. The city of Alexandria in Egypt is the birthplace of modern civilization and of modern science. It was home to the world’s first public library, the Alexandrian Library, founded in 330 AD.

The Alexandria Library

Situated within the Great Library of Alexandria, also known as “Nestor’s Library”. This library was founded in 331 BCE by Ptolemy I Soter (320 – 278 BCE). And was fully functioning as a library in the second century BCE. The library was extended to cover five hectares. And it contained one million scrolls, containing a variety of Greek, and Latin literature. At its height, the library held over 75,000 books and housed around 15,000 scribes, which included about 100 bookkeepers. The library had its own medical clinic, stables, and workshops and was also a site for religious worship. The library was a place where Christians were not permitted to visit. Because there was a belief that Christian and pagan works were very similar.


The structure of libraries of today is much more organized as compared to the ancient times. The growth of the Internet has revolutionized libraries. Due to their exponential growth, though, traditional libraries face a new era of challenges. With so much information online and portable, how can they cater to the ever-increasing number of people wanting to access it?

However, libraries, being much more than a place to store books, can provide a unique service that’s just as valuable and empowering. They can offer new and emerging technologies and skills that are so crucial for our future success. If you work for a library, I’d encourage you to begin considering how your library can thrive in this new digital era.

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