New Worlds: Libraries

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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 . . .

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Libraries — 48 Comments

  1. Another possibility is that Libraries are becoming obsolete. With books being cheaper and cheaper to produce and distribute, and with the means to make it easy to give authors royalties when people rent books – why do we need libraries?

    (Libraries also let people check out music, take the CDs home, and copy the songs to our computers where we never need to pay the artists for what we have).

    Maybe the future is going to be bigger for rents paying the artists than for purchases paying the artists.

    • Another possibility is that Libraries are becoming obsolete. With books being cheaper and cheaper to produce and distribute, and with the means to make it easy to give authors royalties when people rent books – why do we need libraries?

      Plenty of reasons, ranging from the issue that if we ditch paper books and go ebook only then twenty-five years from now there’s going to be a huge pile of things we are no longer capable of reading because technology has changed, to the fact that “books” as a category may be cheap and available but there are vast numbers of titles that (especially in nonfiction) that are still expensive and hard to find, to the consideration that “cheaper” is not the same thing as “free,” and low-income people often depend heavily on access to their local public library.

      • I don’t think we will stop buying books any more than we have stopped buying songs – especially with the Best Sellers. But renting books will follow renting songs. And I expect the tradition of libraries will keep them going for generations.

        It is much easier to find hard-to-find books that have been digitized than those that haven’t.

        • It is much easier to find hard-to-find books that have been digitized than those that haven’t.

          True — but getting older titles digitized in the first place is a non-trivial hurdle.

      • BTW, I depend on my public library. Because it works with other libraries, I can find out-of-print books and expensive academic works that I can’t easily get anywhere else.

        • The effects of digitizing and linking up the catalogs has been enormous. Started in the US, spread to Canada, Europe, South America — etc. Which resulted a much more accurate picture of what books are “rare.”

          The librarian talking about this once at a con talked about how she had picked up a book I forget where because she thought it look interesting. When she tried it on the catalog she found that there was a copy of it in the library of Milan, where it had been published.

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  3. It took me a long time to really grasp the wrong Columcille had done when he copied his abbot’s(?) psalter without getting permission. they went to war over it and he wound up exiled on Iona. I was very young when I read that, books were all over the house — I didn’t get it. Now I do.

    I think it’s probably one of those apocryphal stories that grow up around saints, but it’s still a good story.

  4. Don’t assume things were shelved the way we’re used to, though

    Régine Pernoud in Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths was writing in an informal style, and happened to mention that when she found a certain French author’s work in an American library, she found it herself because of the wonderful system that they were just beginning to adopt in France. . . .

    It was written in 1977.

  5. What bothers me is that we as a society are beginning to put a price on everything, and the price is money. I personally think that some things are too precious not to be free to all. After all, who wants to go back to living in a world where only the people with money have access to things?

    • The catch is that if things are free, where does the money for their upkeep come from? (free admission if one donates a book to them?)

      As admirable as donations of money are, not everyone gives donations – or they only give a dollar or two.

      • Public funds — but the general trend right now is for people to resist the idea that they should “support freeloaders” through public services like that. As opposed to seeing it as an investment in the betterment of society overall.

    • I agree about the problem of putting a price on everything, though I think that’s the problem of a larger economic system that is built on exchanging money for everything.

      But I think we already live in a world where only the people with money have access to things. I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a world where that’s not true. Sure, the library is free, but you can’t get a library card if you don’t have a place to live in the town where the library is located. And you need an ID.

      • Depends on local policy; some places allow any ability to receive mail, including at a shelter. And a 2006 article implies that Worcester MA had limited homeless people to 2 items at a time; the new policy allowed standard borrowing if they could prove an ability to receive mail (e.g. bringing back a postcard sent by the library), even if they didn’t have an ID.

        “in cases in which patrons do not have a driver’s license, ID card or other proof of residence, the library will mail them a postcard, which the individual can then bring back to the library for proof that they can receive mail. “That’s the only way we can get in touch,” Ms. Johnson said.”

        • I know a lot of homeless people living in tents on the street. Don’t know if any of them have a mailing address. They’re probably more likely to have a cell phone or an email address.

    • Someone pointed out recently that if public libraries didn’t exist and you were to propose the concept now, it would be decried as irredeemably socialist.

      Which really inclines me toward socialism.

      • I don’t mind “society” investing in books for all. But I still want artists to get paid.

      • Given global trends toward universal health care and free tertiary education, I am skeptical. In parts of the US, sure.

        Also, core socialism isn’t about public services, it’s about worker or social control of the means of production.

        • True, I was using “socialist” in the non-technical sense — the way that a segment of the U.S. political sphere has demonized anything that isn’t capitalism, red in tooth and claw. That isn’t the same thing as actual, political science socialism.

      • years ago, a friend of mine posted a pair of lists – comparing the rights enshrined in the Bill Of Rights and the promises set out under either socialism or communism, and at least half of the Bill was a match.

        I no longer have a link or a copy of that comparison, though; sorry.

        • I love such comparisons. But we are good at ignoring what we say we value when it disagrees with what we *really* value. As a different example, look at all of the people who preach that they are Christian who have values very different from the values the Bible shows Jesus Christ to have. That said – constitutions are written partially to explain why the old way had to be overturned – and need to persuade the people of their validity.

  6. Reminds me of how, when some Caliphs came to the throne {(sp)Abbissid, i think}, one of the first things they did was to send out people to other cities and towns and nations, and make a copy of any book they found, and bring that copy back to the Caliph’s library. These copyists basically had diplomatic protection (that is, protected by the throne)…though I imagine if push came to shove (and the alternative was war), the copyist would be thrown to the figurative wolves.

    • And that in turn reminds me of some information I saw a while ago on how rapidly the literacy rate increased in Cuba, simply because Castro decided he wanted Cubans to be able to read. There are a myriad of downsides to non-democratic government, but there can also be a benefit: if the person in charge decides they really want a thing to happen, they’ve got a lot more leeway to throw resources at it.

      • kinda like Ataturk in Turkey, only Castro didn’t change the abiguda alphabet. 🙂

  7. I like free stuff – but I’m not an artist who is working for those free stuff for everybody else.

  8. I’m writing a Beauty & the Beast type story right now, and my favorite part has been putting together the magic library- what are the “rules,” what books can be found there, how old or new are they, what is the space physically like. (I’ve been getting rather distracted by making up titles and synopses for fake books instead of actually writing the book I’m supposed to be writing…oops). But I also had to start thinking about what types of books/libraries my bookworm hero would have had access to *before* the magic library comes into play. It’s quasi-eighteenth-century, so the printing press is established. His town has a public primary school, so most people are literate. But what kind of books does the teacher have/are they borrowed out to children? There’s a group of busybody widows who run a charity society, and they have a small subscription library. Do they offer salacious novels, or only “moral” and instructive books? And his father is a wealthy merchant, so they are able to order books both for sale and for personal/family ownership from publishers. It’s been interesting putting those things together to give texture to the world–if you have a character who one of their main features is ‘they’re bookish,’ then they have to get the books from somewhere, and it says more about their background than I realized at first.

    Which is all to say, this month’s topics have been quite on-point for me 🙂

      • Thinking out these particulars kind of led me to one of those little “ah-ha” moments, like, oh yeah, worldbuilding *is* character building and vice versa. Because I’m not going to lay out a pages of exposition on where the books come from in my world, but just thinking about the question helped me put some things together about the character’s economic background, their education, etc.

        • oh yeah, worldbuilding *is* character building and vice versa

          Exactly! This is why, when interviewers ask me whether I start with a character or a plot, I say “a world.” That’s reductionist, of course — the truth is that both character and plot are intertwined with setting to a high enough degree that I can’t really separate them most of the time — but it’s my way of pushing back against what I think is a false binary.

  9. Can’t think of a heist, but various genre works have featured libraries.

    * _Souls in the Great Machine_ trilogy had a “Highliber” as a major character, a woman running a library that dominated a post-apocalyptic Australia. I forget further details.

    * The anime “Library Wars” has a dysfunctionally dystopic Japan, where the paramilitaries of two different branches of the same government (censorship, libraries) shoot it out to censor or protect books. And all that may be backdrop for a romance.

    * Someone back in Bloomington whom Brennan and I both know was running a D&D game where the PCs were acquisitions agents for a library, or something like that.

    * Unseen University’s orangutan Librarian, of course.

    * Nanoha has the “Infinity Library”, which isn’t very detailed, but gives the impression of “we scooped up stuff across dozens of worlds and dumped it in one safe place without cataloguing”.

    • Yeah, I can think of a fair number of books that involve libraries. But breaking into one because the library is a highly secured vault? That’s less common.

      • I think that in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss the main character breaks into a library. I think he was just reading, but he may have borrowed without permission. It’s been a few years since I read the book.

      • Girl Genius (web comic) has the Incorruptible Library and one of the characters has made a habit of breaking into it (theoretically impossible) because he keeps getting his library card revoked. Short section, but I do like the librarians!

      • In Laurie Marks’s Water Logic, Zanja steals a book from a library. It’s crucial to the story. The same library is set up at the beginning of the first book in the series, Fire Logic.

      • The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman has lots of book stealing from various places; I’m pretty sure at least once or twice it’s a library they’re breaking into.

  10. The invisible library by Genevieve Cogman is entirely based on the concept of stealing books. Try it 😀

  11. I read a book in the last year in a fantasy world where a noblewoman is an author and finds people controlling the Royal library when she does her duty at the royal city. I’m not finding the book though.

  12. There’s also WORLDSOUL by Liz Williams, where being a librarian is the most dangerous job in their world. And although they must protect their special collection, they also have to go chasing after escaped stories and books in a city under attack.