Libraries as we think of them nowadays are a modern concept. The word summons to mind a collection of thousands if not millions of books, well-organized according to a categorization system, and often free to check out, either to residents of that area (if it’s a public library) or to students of that institution (if it belongs to a university). They embody the ideal of abundant information, shared with all, for the betterment of the world.
Go back in time, though — especially before the advent of the printing press, which massively lowered the cost of book production — and books become scarce, valuable, and tightly controlled. In the fourteenth century the Sorbonne had 1722 books in its library; in 2018 my husband and I have nearly 3000 in our house. We can loan out books and just be faintly annoyed if they don’t come back, but in the days when every copy had to be created by hand, losing a book might mean the content of that book was gone forever.
Libraries in the sense of “archives of written material” are as old as written material itself, but the first library in the organized, accessible sense seems to have been the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal. It didn’t just collect lots of texts in one place; it was catalogued, and the curses on some tablets threatening the wrath of the gods against anyone who mistreated or failed to return borrowed material tells us there were patrons actively using it.
Its caretakers also pursued acquisitions — though not quite with the zeal of the Library of Alexandria, which reportedly had a policy that anybody coming into the city had to hand over their scrolls for copying. Then the owner got the copy, and the library got the original (presumably because the copy was more likely to have errors). The story goes that parchment came into use elsewhere partly because the library’s appetite for papyrus was so huge, they bought up the majority of the available supply.
Clay tablets could be made cheaply and easily, especially if the text on them wasn’t considered important enough to preserve by firing, but scrolls and especially books are pricier. Because of that, libraries in medieval Europe instituted various security measures to protect their collections. You know how in the Harry Potter movies, some of the books are chained to their shelves? In real life, that wasn’t because the books were dangerous; it was to prevent theft. If you wanted to read a book, you did it right there, on a bench or at the nearest lectern.
(Oh, and being quiet in the library? It used to be common for people to read out loud, to the point where reading silently was remarked upon as unusual.)
You could borrow a book — maybe. Some libraries had a policy that you had to put down collateral for any volume you took out . . . and given the cost of book production, that could be a substantial sum. You might be better off paying for somebody to copy the text for you: even more expensive, but you get to keep the book at the end (without the Akkadian gods cursing you!). But there was rarely any ethos of “information wants to be free,” so unless the title in question was the Bible or some other approved religious text, you couldn’t assume the library’s owner would let you make a copy, or even let you in the door. Access to a library or permission to copy a text was the kind of thing people gave as a gift, a way of showing favor or friendship.
The printing press revolutionized all this. Books were still much more expensive than they are today, but they were wildly cheaper than they’d been before, and they proliferated like mad. Not only were there more copies of any individual title, but there were more titles, period — more books in existence to be owned. The Renaissance promoted the idea that people (well, mostly men) should accumulate texts on a wide range of subjects including not just religion but art, science, history, and more.
This led to a tremendous innovation: the circulating library. Rather than chaining books to the shelves, let them roam free! Much like Netflix and other streaming services, these charged a membership fee, after which you could borrow and return books to your heart’s content. In an era where lost books could be replaced without as much difficulty as before, titles were being published on every topic under the sun, and the public’s appetite for knowledge often outstripped their ability to purchase new books for their own collections, circulating libraries were a huge boost to the dissemination of information. And they are the for-profit ancestors of our public libraries today.
These changes affected not just how people interacted with libraries, but the shape of the libraries themselves. When a few dozen books constituted an impressive private collection, you might keep them locked in a chest, or scattered in various rooms of the house, or on a display shelf where other people could admire them. When your collection grew to hundreds or thousands, it became necessary to have a dedicated room for books and multiple shelves to put them on. Sometimes these shelves were cabinets, with doors to protect the books — Samuel Johnson was noted for having glass-fronted cases — or just curtains to keep out the light.
Protecting texts against damage was a huge challenge. Light and heat can fade them; moisture promotes mildew and rot; insects can eat the binding or the pages; fire burns them real good. (As mentioned in the comments last week, one of the interesting differences between scrolls and books is how well they resist different types of damage, and which parts of them are the most vulnerable.) Nowadays our libraries are ideally climate-controlled, with extensive systems to put out flames without ruining the books in the process. Not all of them live up to that standard, of course, but we do our best.
Don’t assume things were shelved the way we’re used to, though. Placing the title on the spine became more common after the printing press; before that it might be on the band that held the book shut, in which case books could be shelved with their foredge up (if they were in a chest) or out (if they were on a shelf). And standing a book vertically puts stress on the binding: much better to pile them on their sides, though of course that makes getting the bottom book out more difficult. As for scrolls, I’ve commonly seen diagonal shelves in movies — creating angled compartments in which the scrolls can be piled — in settings ranging from Alexandria to medieval Arabia to China — but I don’t know if that’s historically accurate.
So a “library” can mean anything from those birdbox-type structures people put in their front yards to give away books for free to random passers-by, to the New York Public Library with fifty-three million items and its doors open to all, to a literary fortress with locks and keys to protect its trove of five hundred volumes. Has anybody written a heist novel where the point is to steal a book from a well-guarded library? Because now I want to read one . . .