Famous Libraries in History

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The Great Library of Alexandria

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The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the most famous libraries in history, but it was by no means the only one. History is full of great libraries.

The first concerted effort to build a library is thought to have been that of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria.

An ancient library of sorts can be found at the remains of the Villa of the Payri, a private house in Herculaneum, one of the Roman cities engulfed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

The owner of the villa was Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. Piso was quite a collector. His villa had more than 80 sculptures, some quite large. The grounds were extensive, containing a large swimming bath and a large area of both covered and uncovered gardens. The furnishings in the villa were lavish. But the villa is most famous for its library, the contents of which give the villa its name.

Piso was a collector of writings as well. Archaeologists digging in the 1750s found a collection of nearly 1,800 papyrus scrolls. The scrolls were sealed in portable cases and were discovered in tunnels underneath the villa, leading archaeologists to surmise that the owner had attempted to spirit the scrolls away while the volcano was raging.

Like an amazing amount of other people, animals, and things in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, the scrolls were largely preserved by being overrun with volcanic ash. As a result, historians have been able to read what is written on some of the scrolls. The main writings so far discovered are by Philodemus of Gadara, a student of Epicureanism, one of antiquity's dueling philosophical traditions. Among Epicureanism's main tenets was the importance of living a happy and pleasurable life.

The main excavations at the Villa of the Papyri took place between 1750 and 1765, under the direction of Swiss engineer and archaeologist Karl Web. Not all of the land in or under the villa has been excavated.

Another famous ancient library was in Pergamum, in what is now Bergama, Turkey. The Library of Pergamum was established during the rule of King Eumenes II, during the 2nd Century B.C. At its largest, the Pergamum library is thought to have more than 200,000 scrolls.

The library was a quite large building, with a large reading room filled with benches and a great number of shelves. Works stored in the library were written on parchment and stored, rolled up, on shelves. Space was left between the shelves and the outer walls to accommodate air circulation, in an early attempt at preservation (given the humid climate of the area). The library was part of a temple complex dedicated to the goddess Athena, and a large statue of her was in the reading room. Also onsite were study facilities, and this attracted some of the great minds of the time, including several scientists from the famed Great Library of Alexandria.

The Roman Empire assumed control of the Library of Pergamum in 133 B.C. Although the library continued as a source of information and study, its best years proved to be behind it as the centuries passed. The Ottoman Empire took over the library after the fall of Constantinople, in 1453.

Constantinople itself had a great library as well, begun during the 4th Century A.D. by the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantius II, who made room for a Scriptorium to store copies of Greek literature that would otherwise have been lost. (In fact, most of the Greek works that we think of as classics today were preserved in the Imperial Library of Constantinople.) Constantius' other great contribution was the continuation of preservation work started by his predecessor, Constantine himself, to transfer the texts from papyrus to the more durable parchment.

At its height, the Constantinople library was thought to have contained 100,000 volumes of text. The library continued to grow and preserve for the next 10 centuries, despite great damage from a fire in 473 and from rampaging knights during the Fourth Crusade, in 1204. This library met the opposite fate of the Library of Pergamum after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople: It was destroyed.

Perhaps the most famous library during the Dark Ages was the House of Wisdom, an English translation of Bayt al-Hikmah, a library established in Baghdad, in what is now Iraq but was then part of what was known as the Muslim Empire. In Western lands after the fall of the Roman Empire, people turned away from the scientific focus of ancient Greece. This was not the case in the House of Wisdom, where Muslim scientists and scholars gathered to study and progress the world's learning.

Beginning with copies of worlds stores in the libraries of Constantinople (still Byzantine at this time), the librarians at the House of Wisdom created a library of international renown, translating works by Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, and other famous Greeks into Arabic. Indian and Persian texts served as inspiration as well. Special areas of focus at the House of Wisdom included astronomy, cartography, chemistry, geography, mathematics, medicine, and zoology.

One scholar, Hunayn bin Ishaq (known in the West as Joanitius) translated into Arabic the entire body of Greek medical works, including the Hippocratic Oath. He then expanded on the Greeks' knowledge. In fact, one of his books on ophthalmology was the first to include anatomical drawings and was so influential that it was translated into Latin and served as the definitive Western text on the subject for a great many years.

Out of this focus on mathematics and the sciences came the popularization of what we now call Arabic numerals. Originating in India, these numerals simplified counting and made possible the development of algebra. Indeed, algebra is a version of Kitab al-Jabr, a book written by the famed mathematician Al-Khawarizmi.

Of necessity, in lands sometimes bereft of the necessary supply of food, water, wood, or precious metals, Muslim scientists devised inventions in agriculture, construction, and metalworking that were advanced beyond Western knowledge.

Scholars eventually focused on Greek literature and philosophy as well, translating works of Plato and Aristotle into Arabic. With this expansion came a method of cataloging the contents of the library, a good part of which was printed on paper.

Officially, the House of Wisdom opened in 1004. However, the collecting and translating had been happening for awhile before then. The physical collection of works and study lasted until 1258, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad. The learning and writing that took place in the House of Wisdom, however, continued in the traditions of both East and West.

One large library begun in the Middle Ages that survives to this day is the Vatican Library. Although Catholic Church leaders had maintained manuscript and book collections for many years, it was the 15th Century that saw the establishment of the Vatican Library, by Pope Nicholas V. The formal establishment came in 1475. The first librarian, Platina, began in 1481 with a catalog containing about 3,500 listings. About a century later, in 1587, a new building was built to house the growing collection. That building is still in use today.

The Vatican Library contains not only religious works but also law texts and and history texts, science works, and classics from Greece and Rome. The librarians at the Vatican became known throughout the subsequent centuries as eminent scholars, especially during the Renaissance. People came to the Vatican from all over the world to study the texts housed within the Library. To discourage theft, Vatican librarians took up the habit of chaining some books to the benches on which they were displayed.

In all, the holdings at the Vatican Library number in the millions. The Secret Archives, separated from the main library in the 1600s, contain another 150,000 items.

Another of the oldest surviving libraries in Europe is the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, in what is now the United Kingdom. This library, named for noted collector Thomas Bodley, was officially established in 1602 and comprises five buildings, with the Tower of the Five Orders forming the main entrance. The library, which was started with Bodley's extensive collection, has grown in the centuries since, and now functions mainly as a reference library. (In other words, no books leave the premises.) It is the second-largest library in the U.K., behind the British Library.

The Bodlien Library is also one of six legal deposit libraries for books published in the U.K., meaning that the Bodley can request a copy of any book the country publishes. This extends also to books published in Ireland.

One great European library that moved around a fair bit is the National Library of France. Now located on its own grounds in Paris, it began its life in the 14th Century as a royal collection in an adjunct to the Louvre and then bounced around to various locations before being taken over entirely by the population at large during the French Revolution, during which time it had more than 300,000 volumes. Napoleon encouraged additions to the Bibliotheque Nationale, as it was now called, and the size of the collection doubled in his lifetime. For many years, the Bibliotheque Nationale was the largest library in the world. Although it has now lost that title, the library now boasts more than 4 million volumes and 11,000 manuscripts.

The oldest American library began in 1638, with the bequeathing of a few hundred books by Massachusetts minister John Harvard, after whom the country's first university is named. Nearly a century later, Benjamin Franklin and others started the Library Company of Philadelphia, the nation's first subscription library, in 1731.

The Library of Congress opened in 1800, when the nation's capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. The library grew sporadically during the next 14 years but was nearly destroyed during the War of 1812, when British soldiers set fire to the Capitol Building. Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library, 50 years of book-collecting, to make up what was lost. The Library of Congress began again, infused by Jefferson's nearly 6,500 books and grew steadily along with the country.

Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford was responsible for a large amount of the Library's growth, including the 1870 copyright law that mandated two copies of all books from authors seeking copyright permission. The collection grew and grew and soon outgrew its housing. Congress gave permission and funds for a new building, and the current Library of Congress opened to the public on November 1, 1897. It is now the largest library in the world, housing more than 144 million materials in the areas of print, film, and sound recordings.

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