Back in the day, before the advent of online search engines, people with questions commonly turned to the most reliable source they knew: their local library. All you had to do was ask, and a reference librarian would answer your question directly or point you toward a book containing the information you sought.
The Internet has replaced this important service for many, yet brick-and-mortar libraries remain extremely popular, even in our ever-evolving plugged-in world. They are essential bastions of knowledge and much, much more.
The library concept dates back millennia. The first systematically organized library in the ancient Middle East was established in the 7th century BCE by Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, in contemporary Iraq. It contained approximately 30,000 cuneiform tablets assembled by topic. Many of the works were archival documents and scholarly texts, but there were also works of literature, including the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. Like many bibliophiles, Ashurbanipal was very protective of his library. An inscription in one of the texts warns that potential thieves would face the wrath of the gods.
Almost every great civilization that followed built libraries, which were repositories of knowledge often gleaned from far and wide. Some were so large and comprehensive that their legend lives on today. The Library at Alexandria in Egypt, for example, is believed to have held perhaps as many as 700,000 documents from Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and other regions. It was so large that it had a branch facility at the nearby temple of Serapis. The world-famous Bayt al-?ikmah (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, established in 830 CE, was another “super library” famous for a huge collection, and the 10th-century library of Caliph al-?akam in Cordova, Spain, boasted more than 400,000 books. Rome and Athens also boasted expansive libraries, as did cultures in other parts of the world, such as China and the Mayan and Aztec civilizations of Central America.
The goal of ancient libraries was simple: to collect knowledge, learn from it, and use it to make life better. Important advances in agriculture, architecture, medicine, art, manufacturing, war, and more were all disseminated via these vast collections. As the centuries went on, people started to realize the benefits of having publicly accessible hubs of knowledge, and libraries became commonplace in cities and towns all over the globe.
Of course, everything changes with time, and that includes the function of libraries. Before the Internet they were community centers where everyone was invited to sip at the cup of knowledge. But, as the influence of the Internet grew in the 1990s and 2000s, many speculated that there would no longer be a need for libraries—everything you could possibly want to know or learn would be just a mouse click away.
But history has proved otherwise. Community libraries still flourish, more popular than ever. One reason is that not everything can be found on the Internet; an astonishing amount of information resources and ephemera remain available only on paper or other media at libraries. Sometimes, to get what you want, you have to physically go there; the Internet isn’t all-knowing.
And, despite the convenience of the Internet, people still enjoy visiting libraries. They find comfort within the warrens of shelves packed high with books and appreciate the smiling faces of librarians eager to help. Parents bring their children to the library as a youthful rite of passage, while older people enjoy a literary repast in air-conditioned comfort—all for free.
Libraries have evolved as the public’s needs have changed. In fact, if you haven’t visited your local public library in a while, you may be surprised at what it now has to offer. In addition to books, many libraries also loan CDs and DVDs; some now also offer digital copies of books, audiobooks, movies, and more through Internet platforms. Rooms in libraries are set aside for instructional classes that range from English as a second language to parenting skills to personal finances and more. Libraries sometimes also function as a respite for people without access to housing, a safe place where they can relax, use the library’s computers, or read. Some libraries offer community resources beyond media too—baking pans, power tools, and even fishing rods can be borrowed from some modern libraries! Today’s libraries understand the needs of the unique communities around them and strive to fulfill those needs.
Whereas the popularity of the Internet was once considered a harbinger of the decline of libraries, many sites in today’s digital domain have become sources of knowledge advancement—in essence, libraries without walls. They allow visitors to locate works that may be unavailable at their local libraries and download them for later reading on their computer or device. Unique online platforms such as Britannica Beyond also serve many of the same functions as a library, such as answering questions, advocating for the public dissemination of essential knowledge, and directing patrons to information sources they may have been unaware of so they can learn even more.
Public libraries have a rich ongoing history as societal equalizers, offering patrons, past and present, opportunities to read, learn, and advance themselves. Without libraries, who knows where we would be as a society and what advances might never have been made?