THE GREATEST LIBRARIES—THEN AND NOW

August 1, 2016


Does anyone remember books?  We tend to take for granted the notion that people of the world can or should be taught to read.  In the early history of our country, books were somewhat a rarity.  Most children were first taught to read from the Bible because that was sometimes all they had to read.   If we go to the CIA Factbook for countries of the world, we see the ability to read is used as an indicator of poverty and development.  In 1998, the UN defined eighty percent (80%) of the world population as literate, defined as the ability to read and write a simple sentence in a language.

Reading was not always the universal goal for powerful rulers and kings, and in ancient times, literacy was the trade secret of professional scribes. A few centuries later, in Europe, literacy was defined as the ability to read and write in Latin. Later still, the bar was lowered, and people were considered literate if they could sign their names.   In 1841, thirty-three percent (33%) of all Englishmen and forty-four percent (44%) of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark.

We are now in the “information society” where access to the internet, books, magazines, newspapers, and other written documents seem to be readily available to just about everyone, at least in the United States.  Unfortunately, regardless of the literacy programs already initiated in many of our public schools by our government, illiteracy continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to a study conducted in late April 2015 by the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, thirty-two ( 32) million adults in the United States can’t read above a fifth grade level, and nineteen percent (19%) of high school graduates can’t read. NOTE:  THAT’S GRADUATES BY THE WAY!!!!!!

According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is tied to reading failure.” Statistics back up this claim:  eighty-five percent (85%) of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over seventy percent (70%) of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read beyond a fourth grade level. As you can see, literacy rates represent a real problem in our country.

As a species, our thirst for knowledge is evident by recognizing the great libraries that existed in ancient times as well as those existing today.

Why don’t we all get in Mr. Peabody’s Way-back machine and take a look at the great libraries in history.  Then we will examine the great libraries of today.

ANCIENT TIMES:

  • ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT— History tells us that the first ‘universal’ library was the Great Library & Mouseion in Alexandria, Egypt.  Hungry for conquest and knowledge, Alexander the Great spent the last eleven (11) years of his life (334 to 333 B.C.) exploring the world. To broaden the enterprise, he dispatched scholars to unexplored regions to gather knowledge and map their journeys. After the death of Alexander the Great, the pharaoh Ptolemy I commissioned the Great Library project, appointing his adviser, Demetrius of Phaleron, to build the library and become its first director. It is said that the Great Library of Alexandria even had an intricate system of registration and classification.
  • THE CELSUS LIBRARY— Another early library was the Celsus Library in Ephesus, built in 110 A.D. by the Council Gaius Julius Aquila. The library became one of the largest collections of antiquity, storing an estimated 12,000 hand-written books. Books could not be taken out of the library, but were handed to readers by library officials and read in the reading room. The scrolls of the manuscripts were kept in cupboards in niches on the walls. There were double walls behind the bookcases to prevent them from the extremes of temperature and humidity. The capacity of the library was more than 12,000 scrolls. It was the third richest library in ancient times after the Alexandra and Pergamum. The facade of the library has two-stories, with Corinthian style columns on the ground floor and three entrances to the building. There are three windows openings in the upper story. They used an optical trick that the columns at the sides of the facade are shorter than those at the center, giving the illusion of the building being greater in size.
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF SANKORE— The University of Sankore in Timbuktu employed an army of scribes, who earned their living copying the manuscripts. As a result, Timbuktu became a repository of an extensive collection of manuscripts. What were scribes paid? A papyrus of the second century AD gives rates “for 10,000 lines, twenty-eight (28) drachmae for 6,300 lines, thirteen (13) drachmae.” The Emperor Diocletian tried to standardize the pay scribes received throughout the Roman Empire: “to a scribe for the best writing, one hundred (100) lines, twenty-five (25) denarii; for second quality writing one hundred (100) lines twenty )(20) denarii; to a notary for writing a petition or legal document, one hundred (100)lines, ten (10) denarii.”
  • THE BODLEIN LIBRARY—This library is the oldest surviving library and is located in Oxford, England. The Bodleian collection consisted not only of books and manuscripts; it housed pictures, sculptures, coins and medals, and ‘curiosities’: objects of scientific, exotic or historical interest. There’s even a stuffed crocodile from Jamaica!  Today’s Bodleian claims to hold eleven (11) million volumes, and to offer fuller access to online publications and databases than any other academic institution in the UK.
  • CHETHAM’S LIBRARY (Manchester, England) — Chetham’s library is said to be Britain’s oldest surviving public library. Karl Marx visited the library in 1846, at the invitation of his friend Frederick Engels. In the bay of the library’s reading room, they carried out the research for Das Kapital. Over the years, water seeping into the masonry of the building has threatened the structure. Fortunately though, English Heritage has provided grants that will be used to restore this beautiful and significant national treasure.
  • LIBRARY OF CONGRESS— The Library of Congress, founded in 1800, is said to be the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. However, like the libraries of Ephesus and Alexandria, it became a victim of fire. During the War for Independence in 1814, British troops burned the Capitol building and destroyed the Library’s core collection of 3,000 volumes. One year later, however, Congress approved the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of 6,487 books for $23,950 and the Library was restored. Today the Library of Congress claims to be the largest library in the world, with nearly 142 million items on approximately 650 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 32 million books and other print materials, 3 million recordings, 12.5 million photographs, 5.3 million maps, 5.6 million pieces of sheet music and 62 million manuscripts.
  • THE BRITISH LIBRARY(LONDON, ENGLAND)– Compared to many other significant libraries, the British Library is relatively young having been brought into existence in 1972 by the British Library Act. The 1971 White Paper recognized that the constituent bodies of the proposed British Library (principally the British Museum Library) were seriously short of space and that re-housing the various collections was a top priority. The new library combines various components, the best known of which were the library departments of the British Museum, then one of the largest libraries in the world. Lenin had been impressed. It held, he said, a more comprehensive collection of Russian books than the libraries of Moscow and St Petersburg. Other famous visitors to the reading room included Marx, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf. As is so often de rigueur with projects of such vast scale, the St Pancras building became mired in delays and spiraling costs, but was finally opened by the Queen in June 1998.

We have taken a very brief look at libraries of ancient times, so let’s look at contemporary libraries in modern times.

MODERN DAY LIBRARIES (THE TOP TEN IN THE WORLD):

  • LIBRARY OF CONTRESS
  • BODLEIAN LIBRARY
  • READING ROOM AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM,LONDON, ENGLAND
  • YALE UNIVERSITY BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY
  • VATICAN LIBRARY, VATICAN, ROME
  • NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ST.MARK’S,VENICE,ITALY
  • BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY
  • LIBRARY OF PARLIAMENT, OTTAWA, CANADA
  • NEW YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY, NEW YORK, NEW YORK
  • THOMAS FISHER RARE BOOK LIBRARY, TORONTO, CANADA

A most impressive fact about modern-day libraries is the architecture of the building the books are housed in.  The top ten (10) in the world are architectural marvels, not to mention the number of volumes, magazines, tapes, movies, newspapers, microfiche, etc etc contained within the buildings.

To demonstrate this fact, let us now look at several digital photographs at the architecture of several modern-day libraries.

Library of Congress

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

BODLEIAN LIBRARY

THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY

VITICAN LIBRARY

THE VATICAN LIBRARY

BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY

THE BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ST. MARK'S. VENICE, ITALY

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ST. MARK’S, VENICE, ITALY

I certainly hope the internet does not cannibalize our desire to read books.  To me, picking up a written manuscript is far preferable to reading online.  It is just not the same.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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