Tracing the History of Libraries – Part 1

Before the advent of the internet and online information systems, the library is an essential part of a community when it comes to accessing and conserving knowledge. It is still very vital in academic settings such as schools, colleges, and universities. In towns and cities, the community library not only serves as a place to borrow and read books but also an archive of their local history. The library in itself has a fascinating history which can be traced back to ancient times. However, the library, as we understand it today, had its beginnings during the Age of Enlightenment which began in the 17th century. 

Libraries in the 17th and 18th Centuries

During this period, individuals started to value more the importance of learning and scholarship. There were many enthusiastic book collectors in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the habit was becoming more popular as books became more affordable for everyone. While many started their collections as an additional display in their family homes, a lot of collectors had the authentic passion for the written word and scholarship. The private collections that were amassed in Europe and North America became the beginnings of the great libraries of the present day: national libraries and esteemed university collections. In England as well, parish libraries started to develop as an essential part of churches. They were mainly composed of research material for the local clergymen. In some cases, these libraries were funded by the merchant class. These class of society can be credited as well in being responsible for bringing town libraries into existence. This paved the rise for the popularity of subscription and circulating libraries which catered books that interested the public.

The Concept of Library Planning

The idea of planning libraries began when owners of truly extensive private collections needed a more organized approach in handling their books. The practice of chaining books to their cases was abandoned, and the current arrangement of books placed on shelves with their spines facing the peruser was adapted. This practice was said to have originated in France by Jacques-Auguste de Thou, a bibliophile, lawyer, historian, and councilor of the state. Cardinal Mazarin of France owned one of the largest private book collections at the time. This was managed by Gabriel Naudé, who wrote the first treatise on planning and managing libraries, Advice on Establishing a Library, in 1627. His book opened the era of modern library practices. This also introduced the concept of a library open to scholars where the records and books are systematically arranged for the scholars’ ease of use.

The Beginning of National Collections

The Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries launched more rigor and enthusiasm in the inquiry and scholarship undertaken for philosophy and historical studies. During this time, the greatest private collections amassed by royalty, aristocrats, and others in high places began to be opened to the public. A notable example would be Cardinal Mazarin’s library which housed and reassembled in a new building in 1653 and was opened for all in 1691. After the French Revolution, the library was integrated with other vital collections and gave birth to one of the world’s most esteemed libraries and one of France’s national collections, the  Bibliothèque Nationale.