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A library is a collection of books and periodicals, and certain other types of information-containing media, for example, scrolls, as in the Library of Alexandria. It can refer to an individual's private collection, but more often it is a large collection of information resources and a group of services that is funded and maintained by a city or academic institution. In this sense, it is not merely a collection, but an organized collection, intended for use, accompanied by a group of services for users. This collection and the services are often used by people who choose not to — or cannot afford to — purchase an extensive collection themselves, who need material no individual can reasonably be expected to have, or who require professional assistance with their research.

With the collection or invention of media other than books for storing information, many libraries are now also repositories and access points for maps, prints or other artwork, microfilm, microfiche, audio tapes, CDs, LPs, video tapes and DVDs, and provide public facilities to access subscription databases and the Internet. Thus, modern libraries are increasingly being redefined as places to get unrestricted access to information in many formats and from many sources. In addition to providing materials, they also provide the services of specialists who are experts in matters related to finding and organizing information and interpreting information needs, called librarians.

More recently, libraries are understood as extending beyond the physical walls of a building, including material accessible by electronic means, and providing assistance by librarians in navigating and analyzing the tremendous amounts of knowledge with a variety of digital tools.

The term 'library' has itself acquired a secondary meaning: "a comprehensive collection of useful material for common use", and in this sense is used in fields such as computer science, mathematics and statistics, electronics and biology.


The first libraries were composed for the most part of the unpublished records that make up archives. Archaeologists have found temple rooms full of clay tablets in cuneiform script in the ancient city-states of Sumer. These archives were made up nearly completely of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, with only a few documents touching theological matters, historical records or legends. Similar rooms have been found for government and temple records on papyrus of Ancient Egypt.

The earliest discovered private archives were kept at Ugarit; besides correspondence and inventories, texts of myths may have been standardized practice-texts for teaching new scribes.

Private or personal libraries made up of non-fiction and fiction books, (as opposed to the state or institutional records kept in archives) first appeared in classical Greece around the 5th century BC. The celebrated book collectors of Hellenistic Antiquity were listed in the late second century in Deipnosophistae:[1]

"Polycrates of Samos and Pisistratus who was tyrant of Athens, and Euclides who was himself also an Athenian[2] and Nicorrates of Samos and even the kings of Pergamos, and Euripides the poet and Aristotle the philosopher, and Nelius his librarian; from whom they say our countryman[3] Ptolemæus, surnamed Philadelphus, bought them all, and transported them, with all those which he had collected at Athens and at Rhodes to his own beautiful Alexandria." [4]

All these libraries were Greek; the cultivated Hellenized diners in Deipnosophistae pass over the libraries of Rome in silence. At the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum the Greek library has been partly preserved in volcanic ash; archaeologists speculate that a Latin library, kept separate from the Greek one, may await discovery at the site.

Libraries were filled with parchment scrolls as at Pergamum and on papyrus scrolls as at Alexandria: export of prepared writing materials was a staple of commerce. There were a few institutional or royal libraries like the Library of Alexandria which were open to an educated public, but on the whole collections were private. In those rare cases where it was possible for a scholar to consult library books there seems to have been no direct access to the stacks. In all recorded cases the books were kept in a relatively small room where the staff went to get them for the readers, who had to consult them in an adjoining hall or covered walkway.

Little is known about early Chinese libraries, except what is written about the imperial library which began with the Qin Dynasty. One of the curators of the imperial library in the Han Dynasty is believed to have been the first to establish a library classification system and the first book notation system. At this time the library catalog was written on scrolls of fine silk and stored in silk bags.

In Persia many libraries were established by the Zoroastrian elite and the Persian Kings. Among the first ones was a royal library in Isfahan. One of the most important public libraries established around 666 AD in south-western Iran was the Library of Gundishapur. It was a part of a bigger scientific complex located at the Academy of Gundishapur.

In the West, the first public libraries were established under the Roman Empire as each succeeding emperor strove to open one or many which outshone that of his predecessor. Unlike the Greek libraries readers had direct access to the scrolls, which were kept on shelves built into the walls of a large room. Reading or copying was normally done in the room itself. The records give only a few instances of lending features. As a rule Roman public libraries were bilingual: they had a Latin room and a Greek room. Most of the large Roman baths were also cultural centers, built from the start with a library, with the usual two room arrangement for Greek and Latin texts.

In the sixth century, at the very close of the Classical period, the great libraries of the Mediterranean world remained those of Constantinople and Alexandria. Cassiodorus, minister to Theodoric, established a monastery at Vivarium in the heel of Italy with a library where he attempted to bring Greek learning to Latin readers and preserve texts both sacred and secular for future generations. As its unofficial librarian, Cassiodorus not only collected as many manuscripts as he could, he also wrote treatises aimed at instructing his monks in the proper uses of reading and methods for copying texts accurately. In the end, however, the library at Vivarium was dispersed and lost within a century.

Elsewhere in the Early Middle Ages, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and before the rise of the large Western Christian monastery libraries beginning at Montecassino, libraries were found in scattered places in the Christian Middle East. Upon the rise of Islam, libraries in newly Islamic lands knew a brief period of expansion in the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily and Spain. Like the Christian libraries, they mostly contained books which were made of paper, and took a codex or modern form instead of scrolls; they could be found in mosques, private homes, and universities. Some mosques sponsored public libraries. Ibn al-Nadim's bibliography Fihrist demonstrates the devotion of medieval Muslim scholars to books and reliable sources; it contains a description of thousands of books circulating in the Islamic world circa 1000, including an entire section for books about the doctrines of other religions. Unfortunately, modern Islamic libraries for the most part do not hold these antique books; many were lost, destroyed by Mongols or Spanish Inquistors, or removed to European libraries and museums during the colonial period.[5]

By the 8th century first Iranians and then Arabs had imported the craft of paper making from China, with a mill already at work in Baghdad in 794. By the 9th century completely public libraries started to appear in many Islamic cities. They were called "halls of Science" or dar al-'ilm. They were each endowed by Islamic sects with the purpose of representing their tenets as well as promoting the dissemination of secular knowledge. The libraries often employed translators and copyists in large numbers, in order to render into Arabic the bulk of the available Persian, Greek and Roman non-fiction and the classics of literature. This flowering of Islamic learning ceased after a few centuries as the Islamic world began to turn against experimentation and learning. After a few centuries many of these libraries were destroyed by Mongolian invasion. Others were victim of wars and religious strife in the Islamic world. However, a few examples of these medieval libraries, such as the libraries of Chinguetti in West Africa, remain intact and relatively unchanged even today. Another ancient library from this period which is still operational and expanding is the Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi in the Iranian city of Mashhad, which has been operating for more than six centuries.

The contents of these Islamic libraries were copied by Christian monks in Muslim/Christian border areas, particularly Spain and Sicily. From there they eventually made their way into other parts of Christian Europe. These copies joined works that had been preserved directly by Christian monks from Greek and Roman originals, as well as copies Western Christian monks made of Byzantine works. The resulting conglomerate libraries are the basis of every modern library today.

Medieval library design reflected the fact that these manuscripts--created via the labor-intensive process of hand copying--were valuable possessions. Library architecture developed in response to the need for security. Librarians often chained books to lecterns, armaria, or shelves, in well-lit rooms. Despite this protectiveness, many libraries were willing to lend their books if provided with security deposits (usually money or a book of equal value). Monastic libraries lent and borrowed books from each other frequently and lending policy was often theologically grounded. For example, the Franciscan monasteries loaned books to each other without a security deposit since according to their vow of poverty only the entire order could own property. In 1212 the council of Paris condemned those monasteries that still forbade loaning books, reminding them that lending is "one of the chief works of mercy." [6]

The early libraries located in monastic cloisters and associated with scriptoria were collections of lecterns with books chained to them. Shelves built above and between back-to-back lecterns were the beginning of bookpresses. The chain was attached at the fore-edge of a book rather than to its spine. Book presses came to be arranged in carrels (perpendicular to the walls and therefore to the windows) in order to maximize lighting, with low bookcases in front of the windows. This stall system (fixed bookcases perpendicular to exterior walls pierced by closely spaced windows) was characteristic of English institutional libraries. In Continental libraries, bookcases were arranged parallel to and against the walls. This wall system was first introduced on a large scale in Spain's El Escorial.

As books became cheaper, the need for chaining them lessened. But as the number of books in libraries increased, so did the need for compact storage and access with adequate lighting, giving birth to the stack system, which involved keeping a library's collection of books in a space separate from the reading room, an arrangement which arose in the 19th century. Book stacks quickly evolved into a fairly standard form in which the cast iron and steel frameworks supporting the bookshelves also supported the floors, which often were built of translucent blocks to permit the passage of light (but were not transparent, for reasons of modesty). With the introduction of electrical lighting, the use of glass floors was largely discontinued, though floors were still often composed of metal grating to allow air to circulate in multi-story stacks.

Ultimately, even more space was needed, and a method of moving shelves on tracks ("compact shelving") was introduced to cut down on otherwise wasted aisle space. In the 1980s large academic libraries started moving their older books to off-campus storage sites, whence books could be retrieved in a day or two.

Carnegie Libraries

Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) dated his interest in libraries dated back to his early days as a messenger-boy in Pittsburgh, when each Saturday he borrowed a new book from a free library. He later declared that it was his own personal experience which led him to value a library beyond all other forms of beneficence. His first gift was a library to his native town of Dunfermline in 1882. In 1898 he built The Carnegie Library in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Besides a library, the building included a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool, basketball courts and other athletic facilities, a music hall, and space for a large number of meeting rooms for local clubs and organizations. Carnegie systematically funded 2,507 libraries throughout the English-speaking world, including 1,689 libraries in the United States, 600 libraries in Great Britain, 66 in Ireland, and 125 in Canada. James Bertram, Carnegie's chief aide from 1894 to 1914 administered the library program, issued guidelines and instituted an architectural review process.

As VanSlyck (1989) shows, the last years of the 19th century saw acceptance of the idea that libraries should be available to the American public free of charge. However the design of the idealized free library was at the center of a prolonged and heated debate. On one hand, wealthy philanthropists favored buildings that reinforced the paternalistic metaphor and enhanced civic pride. They wanted a grandiose showcase that created a grand vista through a double-height, alcoved bookhall with domestically-scaled reading rooms, perhaps dominated by the donor's portrait over the fireplace. Typical examples were the New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library. Librarians considered that grand design inefficient, and too expensive to maintain. Between 1886 and 1917, Carnegie reformed both library philanthropy and library design, encouraging a closer correspondence between the two. The Carnegie buildings typically followed a standardized style called "Carnegie Classic": a rectangular, T-shaped or L-shaped structure of stone or brick, with rusticated stone foundations and low-pitched, hipped roofs, with space allocated by function and efficiency.[7]

Carnegie libraries served not only as free circulating collections of books, magazines and newspapers, but also provided classrooms for growing school districts, Red Cross stations, and public meeting spaces, not to mention permanent jobs for the graduates of newly formed library schools. Academic libraries were built for 108 colleges. Usually there was no charge to read or borrow; in New Zealand, however, local taxes were too low to support libraries and most charged subscription fees to their users. The arrangements were always the same: Carnegie would provide the funds for the building but only after the municipal government had provided a site for the building and had passed an ordinance for the purchase of books and future maintenance of the library through taxation. This policy was in accord with Carnegie's philosophy that the dispensation of wealth for the benefit of society must never be in the form of free charity but rather must be as a buttress to the community's responsibility for its own welfare.

In 1901, Carnegie offered to donate $100,000 to the city of Richmond, Virginia, for a public library. The city council had to furnish a site for the building and guarantee that $10,000 in municipal funds would be budgeted for the library each year. Despite the support from the majority of Richmond's civic leaders, the city council rejected Carnegie's offer. A combination of aversion to new taxes, fear of modernization, and fear that Carnegie might require the city to admit black patrons to his library account for the local government's refusal.[8] In 1903 union leaders in Wheeling, West Virginia, blocked the acceptance of a Carnegie library there. The Detroit Library subsisted on library fines and inadequate city funds; Carnegie offered $750,000 in 1901 but was turned down because it was "tainted money"; after nine more years of underfunding Detroit took the money.

Types of libraries

Libraries can be divided into categories by several methods:

  • by the entity (institution, municipality, or corporate body) that supports or perpetuates them
    • school libraries
    • private libraries
    • corporate libraries
    • government libraries
    • academic libraries
    • historical society libraries
  • by the type of documents or materials they hold
    • digital libraries
    • picture (photograph) libraries
    • slide libraries
    • tool libraries
  • by the subject matter of documents they hold
    • architecture libraries
    • fine arts libraries
    • law libraries
    • medical libraries
    • theological libraries
  • by the users they serve
    • by traditional professional divisions:
    • Academic library — These libraries are located on the campuses of colleges and universities and serve primarily the students and faculty of that and other academic institutions. Some academic libraries, especially those at public institutions, are accessible to of the general public in whole or in part.
    • School libraries — Most public and private primary and secondary schools have libraries designed to support the curriculum.
    • Research libraries — These libraries are intended for the purpose of supporting scholarly research, and therefore maintain permanent collections and attempt to provide access to all necessary material. Research libraries are most often academic libraries or national libraries, but many large [special libraries]] hare research libraries within their special field and a very few of the largest public libraries, notably the New York Public Library, serve as research libraries.
    • Public libraries or public lending libraries — These libraries provide service to the general public and make at least some of their books available for borrowing, so that readers may use them at home over a period of days or weeks. Many public libraries also serve as community organizations that provide free services and events to the public, particularly children.
    • Special libraries — All other libraries fall into this category. Many private businesses and public organizations, including hospitals, museums, research laboratories, law firms, and many government departments and agencies, maintain their own libraries for the use of their employees in doing specialized research related to their work. Special libraries may or may not be accessible to some identified part of the general public. Branches of a large academic or research libraries dealing with particular subjects are also usually called "special libraries": they are generally associated with one or more academic departments. Special libraries are distinguished from special collections, which are branches or parts of a library intended for rare books, manuscripts, and similar material. [1]

Also, the governments of most major countries support national libraries. Three noteworthy examples are the U.S. Library of Congress, Library and Archives Canada and the British Library. A typically broad sample of libraries in one state in the U.S. can be explored at Every Library In Illinois.


Libraries have materials arranged in a specified order according to a library classification system, so that items may be located quickly and collections may be browsed efficiently. Some libraries have additional galleries beyond the public ones, where reference materials are stored. These reference stacks may be open to selected members of the public. Others require patrons to submit a "stack request," which is a request for an assistant to retrieve the material from the closed stacks.

Larger libraries are often broken down into departments staffed by both paraprofessionals and professional librarians.

  • Circulation handles user accounts and the loaning/returning and shelving of materials.
  • Technical Services works behind the scenes cataloging and processing new materials and deaccessioning weeded materials.
  • Reference staffs a reference desk answering user questions (using structured reference interviews), instructing users, and developing library programming. Reference may be further broken down by user groups or materials such as Youth, Teen, Genealogy or Special Collections.
  • Collection Development orders materials and maintains materials budgets.

Library use

Many potential library patrons nevertheless do not know how to use a library effectively. This can be due to lack of early exposure, shyness, or anxiety and fear of displaying ignorance. These problems drove the emergence of the library instruction movement, which advocates library user education. Library instruction has been practiced in the U.S. since the 19th century. One of the early leaders was John Cotton Dana. Library instruction is closely related to the study of information literacy.

Libraries inform the public of what materials are available in their collections and how to access that information. Before the computer age, this was accomplished by the card catalog — a cabinet containing many drawers filled with index cards that identified books and other materials. In a large library, the card catalog often filled a large room. The paper-card -catalog was replaced in the 1980s with the electronic catalog, a database (often referred to as "webcats" or as "OPAC", for "online public access catalog"), which allow users to search the library's holdings from any location with Internet access. This style of catalog maintenance is compatible with new types of libraries, such as digital libraries and distributed libraries, as well as older libraries that have been retrofitted. Electronic catalog databases are disfavored by some who believe that the old card catalog system was both easier to navigate and allowed retention of information, by writing directly on the cards, that is lost in the electronic systems. This argument is analogous to the debate over paper books and ebooks. While they have been accused of precipitously throwing out valuable information in card catalogs, most modern libraries have nonetheless made the movement to electronic catalog databases.

Finland has the highest number of registered book borrowers per capita in the world. Over half of Finland´s population are registered borrowers.

Library management

Basic tasks in library management include the planning of acquisitions (which materials the library should acquire, by purchase or otherwise), library classification of acquired materials, preservation of materials (especially rare and fragile archival materials such as manuscripts), the deaccessioning of materials, patron borrowing of materials, and developing and administering library computer systems. More long-term issues include the planning of the construction of new libraries or extensions to existing ones, and the development and implementation of outreach services and reading-enhancement services (such as adult literacy and children's programming).


  1. Epitome of Book I
  2. Not the familiar mathematician named Euclid.
  3. The writer was Alexandrian; the sophisticates in Deipnosophistae were at a banquet in Rome.
  4. See Library of Alexandria.
  5. John L. Esposito (ed.) (1995). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506613-8. 
  6. Geo. Haven Putnam (1962). Books and Their Makers in the Middle Ages. Hillary. 
  7. See Theodore Jones, Carnegie Libraries Across America: A Public Legacy. 1997; Peter Mickelson, "American Society and the Public Library in the Thought of Andrew Carnegie." Journal of Library History 1975 10(2): 117-138. Issn: 0275-3650; Abigail A. VanSlyck, "'The Utmost Amount of Effectiv Accommodation': Andrew Carnegie and the Reform of the American Library." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 1991 50(4): 359-383. Issn: 0037-9808 Fulltext: in Jstor; and Abigail Ayres VanSlyck, "Free to All: Carnegie Libraries and the Transformation of American Culture, 1886-1917." PhD disertation U. of California, Berkeley 1989. 375 pp. DAI 1990 51(5): 1420-A. DA9029058 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  8. Carolyn H. Leatherman, "Richmond Considers a Free Public Library: Andrew Carnegie's Offer of 1901." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 1988 96(2): 181-192. Issn: 0042-6636