Library Column 

The evolution of libraries

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the public library? Did you know that before the mid 1800s most libraries were privately owned? Only certain people could use them – scholars, clergy, university students and the wealthy. Today in many parts of the world, including North America, library materials are available for use by anyone.

Libraries have always served to make available the knowledge that has been accumulated through the ages as well as to preserve society’s cultural heritage. Library collections are important resources for our educational, informational and recreational needs.

Throughout the years libraries’ resources have improved – materials now include not only books, but films, recordings and online databases. Librarians assist users with their informational needs, provide programs for children and adults, organize school visits and visit day care centres. The library itself is a welcoming place, a far cry from the dark and unattractive libraries of the past.

The history of libraries parallels the history of writing. For about five centuries people have made written records of their ideas on a variety of materials: bone, clay, metal, wax, wood, papyrus, silk, leather, parchment, paper, film, plastic and magnetic tape.

The most famous library of ancient times was the library in Alexandria, Egypt, founded in the 330’s BC. The Librarian of Alexandria was one of the highest and most honourable official posts and was appointed by the king himself. The library housed the greatest collection of scrolls in the ancient world and had a copy of every existing scroll known to the library’s administrators, up to 700,000 scrolls at its peak, the equivalent of almost 125,000 printed books today. Not a trace of the library remains today and despite serious contradictions upon its fate, its destruction did take place over 450 years. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in 2001, after six years of construction. On 11 floors, it is an integrated cultural complex, including libraries, museums, exhibition areas, educational centres and an international conference centre.

During the Renaissance the book trade began to grow as both the number of readers and the taste for reading increased. However books were expensive and few people could afford to buy all the books they wanted to read. Just because books were too expensive to buy did not mean that they must be too expensive to read. By the 18 th century French and British booksellers charged a small fee for reading books in their shops and rented them for reading at home. In London, coffee houses provided newspapers and magazines for their customers, as an essential complement to the beverages they served; the only difference with today’s coffee shops was that for those who didn’t want coffee, reading privileges were sold by the hour! In Paris and Vienna the cabinets de lecture offered those who paid a small entrance fee the opportunity to read newly published books as well as current periodicals.


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