A Brief History of Libraries


As the popularity of digital content over printed content continues, some may think that libraries are slowly becoming obsolete. However, that conclusion is wrong!

Sure, a big function of libraries is to house resources and materials (and maybe help you figure out MLA citations). But, the greater purpose of libraries, stretching back across millennia, has been not just to house books, but to be spaces and collections that facilitate the process of contributing to human knowledge. Libraries and librarians will continue to facilitate this process even as we continue to push forward in the digital age.

To understand this great purpose of libraries and to show how libraries will continue to be relevant in the digital future, here is a brief history of libraries and the role of librarians across human cultures.

Ancient Stone Libraries

By some historians, the creation of the first libraries marks the end of pre-history and the start of recorded human history. As ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamians and Egyptians began to develop the earliest forms of writing—Mesopotamian Cuneiform and later the Egyptian hieroglyphs—scribes began to create archives of clay tablets that listed inventories and records of commercial transactions.

While these early documents might not sound exciting or philosophical, they were instrumental in growing knowledge and early human civilization. They often shared key pieces of information needed to build societies. From early medical diagnoses, to inventories of the yearly harvest surpluses, to the laws that governed city-states—such as the Code of Hummurabi—these ancient scribes accumulated documents so they could draw upon information as needed. For example, if the ancient Mesopotamian government needed to predict whether their harvest would be good or bad after a large flood, scribes could point officials towards records of earlier harvests to help them with planning.

In this way, ancient scribes forged the role of librarians—connecting people with knowledge by giving them access to recorded information.

The Invention of Paper Documents

As ancient civilizations developed techniques for producing paper, grand libraries were built to house the great collections of scrolls that governments and individuals began to develop.

These great ancient libraries included the Library of Alexandria and the Chinese Imperial Libraries created during the Han Dynasty. While these libraries were open to the public, they were not easy to browse. Scholars who intended to read specific texts or authors had to ask librarians to fetch specific scrolls for them (Krasner-Khait). Thus, librarians continued to be the players who connected scholars with critical recorded information.

The libraries established by the Han Dynasty were particularly exciting in the history of libraries, as Chinese librarian Liu Xin created the first library classification/formal catalog system (Frank). Moreover, ancient Chinese scribes invented important book printing technologies such as wood-block printing that enabled the first large-scale printing and mass dispersing of texts.

Religious Libraries in the Middle Ages and Early Public Libraries

As antiquity ended with the fall of the Roman Empire, religious institutions began to take over the functions of ancient government and private libraries. In Western Europe, Catholic monks took an active role in collecting and creating written texts, and monasteries made up the main libraries.

In Muslim countries, Imams and other scholars used printing techniques developed by Chinese scholars to create collections of written texts. Early libraries were created to house Qur’anic texts, but also included important early developments in astronomy and mathematics by Arabic scholars.

As the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment movements spread throughout Europe, non-religious libraries began to pop-up. These libraries, such as the humanist, Bartolomeo Platina’s library and the Austrian National Library, served as institutional meeting places of scholars who collected and produced written texts on philosophy, mathematics, religion, and science. After the creation of the Gutenberg Printing Press, the libraries began to store not just valuable ancient texts, but modern books as well.

Although these libraries were independent, they were open only to card-holders usually from grand academic instructions or the aristocracy.

The Development of Public Libraries

By the 1800s there were libraries across the United States and Europe that were open to the public, but were not public libraries in the same sense that they are today.

While large university libraries and privately-owned libraries allowed individuals from outside of the institution to visit, these people had to pay for their entry. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the first true public libraries—in that they are funded by public taxes and therefore open to everyone—began to open.

This system is still in place today. Most universities, including private ones who receive federal funding, and municipal libraries are free and open to the public. The fact that libraries are open is of huge importance to the history of libraries, as it has forged a great role for libraries to help the general public access vital information—from medicine and science to public affairs and literary arts. Moreover, these libraries serve a critical function of connecting to other libraries. Most universities and municipal library systems have a mechanism for sharing materials and information.

In this sense, librarians in public libraries serve a critical function in helping the general public access a vast collection of information. Whether it is an archive of news stories around a particular historical event, a rare unedited edition of a book, or a digitally published paper, libraries have a system for helping individuals find the materials they are looking for. For example, a librarian might not be a doctor, but they can help a young medical student track down a specific research study pertinent to their term paper research. This is also why knowing how to cite, where to look for information, how to do an in text citation, and other skills comes in handy. If you ever need additional information on a topic, you can read the bibliography, from either your own paper or someone else’s, and use it to discover additional resources at your library.

How will libraries survive in the Digital Age?

Libraries and the role of librarians will survive as digital tools take over printed material, the same way they have survived across millennia—by adapting to the modes of documentation and the needs of information seekers at the time.

As online databases continue to develop, librarians will still serve an active role in connecting people with the information they need. While a library might not need to house as many books and print archives for scholars and readers to sift through, it will still serve as a space for people to come to seek out knowledge.

People will still turn to libraries and librarians to connect them to the correct online tools they need to conduct their research.



Create citations like these using Cite This For Me’s referencing tools. They offer many citation styles like MLA, APA, Chicago style format, Harvard referencing, and many more!


Frank, Francis C., et al. “The History of Libraries.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/library/The-history-of-libraries.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara. “Survivor: The History of the Library.” History Magazine, October/November 2001, www.history-magazine.com/libraries.html.