Libraries have been around as long as civilization has existed. They offer humanity a plethora of knowledge, amazing resources, and beautiful architecture. Most libraries in the world are free, but libraries weren’t always that way. Many ancient libraries required a membership fee because books were so rare and valued. In the current era of so much information, libraries sometimes seem archaic. Nevertheless, the one thing libraries have that no other media can ever have is a rich cultural history. Dating back to around 2500 BCE, the first libraries contained clay tablets and kept records of the civilizations that existed during that time. Here are the world’s five oldest libraries.
Wells Cathedral’s Library – England
This ancient library used to belong to the cathedral where it’s located, since monks and other church clergy were largely the first readers of the world. Located in Somerset, England, it was built sometime between 1430 and 1508, though the exact date is unknown. There are three main collection rooms at Wells, and each has its own purpose. The Muniment Room houses the earliest documents in the collection. In the Chained Library, early patrons before 1800 could read the books — so long as they didn’t mind the chains attaching them to the shelves. After 1800, the Reading Room was created with fewer rules. Though the Chained Library is off-limits to visitors, it can be seen through the Reading Room, and photos are encouraged. This is an excellent example of life before the printing press provided the opportunity for everyone to read.
National Library of France
Commissioned by Charles V way back in 1368, this ancient library boasts being the first home of France’s royal collection of important manuscripts, documents and books. After receiving the illuminated texts from his predecessor, John II, Charles recognized the need for a national library and moved the manuscripts from their former home in the Louvre to the ancient library. As one of the world’s oldest libraries that is still in use today, it is now home to over 40 million items, including some 14 million books and journals.
St. Catherine’s Monastery Library – Egypt
Recently reopened following significant renovations, this ancient library contains thousands of religious and historical manuscripts. St. Catherine’s is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in South Sinai, Egypt. Three years of renovations to the ancient library were well worth it. This library is second in the world in terms of its collection of codices and manuscripts, rivaling only the Vatican. Many of the manuscripts are early Christian documents written in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Slavonic, and Georgian. Some of the manuscripts are believed to have been reused during the ancient library’s long and storied existence. It is currently open to the public and to scholars.
Library of Pergamum – Turkey
Created in 197 BCE in modern day Turkey, this majestic city was once the cultural hub of the ancient world, rivaling both Alexandria and Antioch. Legend has it that Pergamum is responsible for parchment, and some linguists agree that the word “parchment” comes from the word “pergamenos,” which is ancient Greek for “from Pergamom.” Though this has been disputed through historical artifacts unearthed from Antolia, the city used the early buzz marketing for its benefit and produced and stored much of the parchment of the ancient world.
Pergamum was the second best of all the ancient libraries in the world at the time and contained about 200,000 books. Because the records have been lost over the course of history, there’s no real indicator of how many books were actually there, but historians do know how the materials for the ancient library were funded. A wealthy citizen of Pergamum, Flava Melitene, is lauded as being the principal supplier for many of the tomes the library once held.
Al-Qarawiyyin Library – Morocco
Quite possibly the oldest library in the world, this one is also home to the oldest operating university. Located in sunny Fez, Morocco, many of the local residents have never been inside the library. The ancient library grew from a mosque and university, which were founded sometime in the 9th century. It’s reported that an heiress is the originator of the library, but there’s no concrete evidence to support that. There are currently about 4,000 manuscripts. The best part is this ancient library is open to the public, thanks in part to a large restoration project that was recently completed.
No matter what these ancient libraries contain, one thing is for sure: The culture and history of any civilization is important and needs to be recorded and safeguarded. If these ancient libraries teach us anything, it’s that wisdom and knowledge hold fast in the face of history.