4 Important Dates in the Evolution of Libraries

4 Important Dates in the Evolution of Libraries

By tracing the history of libraries from ancient times to today, we can better understand the role of the library in society and culture. Exploring the events that have shaped how we think about modern libraries can also give us clues about where library science may be headed in the future. Here are four of the most significant dates or events in the evolution of libraries throughout history.

Ancient Libraries

Many people are familiar with the tragic loss of the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt. But fewer are aware of the other long-lost libraries that helped establish the value and importance of a central collection of culture and knowledge. These include the library at Pergamum, which Plutarch’s writings said was home to over 200,000 volumes in what is now Turkey, and a Babylonian collection of clay tablets in the 21st century B.C. that is recognized as the world’s earliest known library.

Public Libraries Act of 1850

The United Kingdom gets credit for legislation that created the kind of public library system that Americans and many others enjoy today. The Act gave local boroughs the power to create libraries that were free and open to the public. The motives for the act may have been less that altruistic, however. The shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy left lower-class workers with more free time, and members of the middle and upper classes wanted to make sure that time would be spent in respectable ways.

Introduction of the New Library of Congress in 1897

British contributions to the history of libraries were not all positive. In August of 1814, England invaded Washington D.C. and destroyed the Library of Congress and its 5,000 volumes. Thomas Jefferson offered the use of his personal library, which contained literature and other books that had not been part of the original Library of Congress’s collection that mainly focused on law and politics.

Jefferson inspired leaders to embark on a massive effort to collect a vast and diverse collection for the new library. The country’s second Library of Congress, housed in a large and expensive new building designed to protect its contents from another attack, opened to the public on November 1, 1897. In many ways, it made librarianship a matter of patriotism, paving the way for an extensive national network of local branches.

June 17, 2014 — White House Maker Faire












Image via Flickr by NASA HQ PHOTO

It’s admittedly a big leap forward in time, but the Obama administration’s acknowledgment of the maker movement also represents a big leap forward in how libraries fit into our culture. The goal of the Faire was to celebrate and encourage those creating and using maker spaces. In libraries, maker spaces are areas built for collaborative, hands-on learning and experimentation. They often feature 3D printers, creative software, and other tools to help bring new ideas to life. As libraries become hubs of innovation and creativity, they attract a new generation to discover what they offer, and help shape their future.

Countless global events over the centuries have shaped libraries, but these four are among the most significant. How libraries will continue to evolve and which events will trigger those changes remains to be seen.