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The History Of Libraries I. – Classical Antiquity


Can you imagine yourself in the classical antiquity? This period took place between 8th century BC and 6th century AD and centered in South Europe on the Mediterranean Sea, with ancient Greece and ancient Rome being its most significant civilizations. Ancient Greece and Rome are often considered to be the foundational culture of Western civilization thanks to their language, developed politics, infrastructure, and educational systems. Moreover, architecture, philosophy and art also bloomed like never before in these societies.

With all these circumstances and advancements, libraries also began to play a bigger role during the classical antiquity era, but there is obviously something that triggered the formulation of these institutions. The first libraries are believed to appeared five thousand years ago on the Fertile Crescent, which is also the birthplace of writing. Similarly, archives were found in temple rooms in Sumer, consisting of clay tablets with the earliest form of writing dating back to 2600 BC. Several ancient Egyptian temple records on papyrus were discovered, and furthermore, there is also evidence of libraries at the ancient Sumerian city Nippur from about 1900 BC.

The role of ancient libraries

The documents in these early libraries contained key knowledge about building and growing societies rather than philosophical or artistic items. These ancient records however played another important role – they created the position of librarians. The duty of ancient librarians consisted of giving the people access to the preserved information.

It was around the beginning of the classical period when libraries began collecting items other than precious resources. Moreover, libraries slowly became a feature of large cities, including Constantinople or Nineveh. These institutions were primarily designed to protect the documents from damage caused by natural disasters or wars. They were rarely open to the public with no possibility to rent papyrus or leather scrolls. In the unlikely situations when they were accessible, visiting scholars could come study and copy various topics from the stored documents. The librarians’ role continued to be binding people and the recorded information.

Advancements – Ancient Greece and Rome

It was only in the 5th century BC in Ancient Greece that books started circulating to the public, causing private and personal libraries to appear. These libraries were made up of written books instead of the previously common archives of documents, often containing the best-known works of philosophers and poets. Private collections were gaining massive popularity over time, as this way the books were easily accessible. The book collectors of the Hellenistic antiquity were even listed in the 2nd century in Deipnosophistae.

Philosopher Aristotle obtained one of the biggest book collections, which he made available to his students at Lyceum. With this, his library was serving the same purpose as a university or public library would today. The first true public libraries however were only opened by Hellenistic kings after Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC), who established the Great Library of Alexandria, the largest great library of the ancient world. It was open to people with proper scholarly and literary educations. The librarians, who were leading scholars and who ran this library developed many bibliographical tools and techniques that we use today, including alphabetical order, punctuation, glossary, and grammar.

The books during this period were still mostly scrolls, made out of papyrus or leather. Apart from a few big institutions specifically designed to house books, the majority of libraries were not planned exclusively for this purpose in Ancient Greece. As an effect, the books were stored in the buildings on shelves, but the reading was done outside. Although the libraries were more inclusive than before, they remained the privilege of the educated scientists, teachers and scholars.

In the Roman Empire private libraries also became widespread thanks to the effects of Hellenism. Although in the 2nd century BC Latin works were already circulated, in the beginning Roman libraries mainly consisted of Greek books. In fact, the possession of a private library with precious works was viewed as a status symbol for affluent Romans.

It was Roman statesmen Ceasar who planned the first public Roman library, which was built and opened by Asinius Pollio in 39 BC. By the time of Augustus’s death (14 AD), Rome had 3 public libraries already. In the next 300 years several public institutions were established as the emperors had the aim to open libraries that outshine their predecessors’. In the 300s the city of Rome alone was home to 28 libraries, with one head librarian to oversee the whole system. This sudden growth is also an effect of the invention of paper (around 100 BC in China) and other technological developments of the period.

Opposite to the Greek libraries, the readers of the Roman Empire had direct access to scrolls, and the reading was normally done inside the building. In most cases, the libraries were beautifully constructed, consisting of a storage room and a reading area. In certain libraries lending was possible too, but that was not common. Roman libraries became the place where authors released their works to the public, reading them out loud to the audience. Some of these readings occurred at public places typically visited by aristocrats, such as baths, theatres or even in the Forum Romanum.

The Romans put a lot more emphasis on the libraries’ outlook thanks to the hedonist frame of mind of many emperors and aristocrats. They looked at libraries as a sign of their own wealth, intelligence, glory, culture, and sophistication. One of the most well-known Roman libraries, which also represents these values is the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, built in the early 2nd century AD.  It clearly celebrates the wealth and career of its donor, Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus.


Although most of them were destroyed in later historical periods, the Ancient Greek and Roman libraries clearly laid the foundation of today’s western library systems. The establishment of private and public libraries had a significant impact on the future. In addition, a lot of the bibliographical tools and techniques that were developed in the classical antiquity are still used in our modern world.

If you are interested in how libraries developed through the next time periods, stay with us and read our future posts on the Princh Library Blog.

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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