Ancient Libraries

Library of Alexandria. 19th Century rendering by O. Von Corven. image from

Libraries in the ancient world are not like the libraries we know today. Often they were privately owned, and very few people would have had access to the material inside. Partially, this was because literacy was not widespread and therefore confined to the elite. Even in Greece, which prized literacy pretty highly, literacy rates were about 10% and in other cultures, much lower. However, they were still extraordinary achievements that brought together records of human thought, production, and faith.

Today I wanted to talk about 3 pretty extraordinary early libraries, starting with the one that is probably the most familiar to you:

Library of Alexandria

There’s a story that one of the gifts given to Cleopatra by her lover Marc Antony was an addition of 200,000 scrolls to the library. The library contained somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 scrolls, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 full sized books as we know them today. These numbers are not verifiable, but ancient visitors all agreed that the size of the collection was massive. Conceived of by Alexander the Great as he conquered his way through the known world as a way to share and glorify the Greek culture that valued literacy. While he didn’t live to see the library constructed, his Ptolemy successors built the library in around 300 BC with the amazing goal: to collect the sum total of all human knowledge and organize it.

The Alexandrian library was also the birthplace of many important pieces of ancient scholarship including Euclid’s geometry and Archimedes’ principles of physics. The center of human thinking was postulated to be held in the brain rather than the heart, which was previously believed to be one of the most important organs. Erastosthenes calculated, with pretty astonishing precision, the circumference of the Earth.

The myth of the library is that it tragically burned down. But while it suffered from a fire or two, it was rebuilt. The real destruction of the library came from a much more mundane source–a lack of funding and support. Unfortunately the library would be totally demolished by 391 AD.


Around 650 BC Ashurbanipal was a King who ruled in Mesopotamia, more specifically in Nineveh, which is now called Mosul (in Iraq), and he built an extraordinary library. This library consisted of about 30,000 tablets or more, which were divided into rooms for the different subjects: geography, treaties, history, myths and legends, and taxes.

Writings were carved into clay tablets in a script called cuneiform (named for the wedge shape of the markings), which were then placed in containers and shelved and cataloged. Because this was a private library owned by the King, there was nothing in the library that he did not expressly approve of, which the early librarian alludes to. Censorship goes hand in hand with the earliest libraries. If you were caught stealing from the library or you didn’t return a set of tablets, you were warned that a curse would be put upon you.

The library was destroyed about 25 years Ashurbanipal’s death. There was a fire that destroyed much of the library, but it hardened the clay tablets, preserving them for thousands of years ready to be rediscovered in the 1800s. Much of the contents were transported to the British Museum, but perhaps one day these objects will come back and this great ancient library will be rebuilt near its original location.

Ulpian Library

Romans had a thriving book culture, but they viewed books a little differently than other ancient counterparts. Books were very much seen as status objects, and they had them everywhere including in their bath houses (which must have been terrible for those poor papyrus scrolls…). Roman emperors would come back from a successful campaign and bring back with them books, librarians (as slaves, generally) and build libraries to commemorate their victories. These were public in that they were available for use of the aristocracy, but they were not public in the sense of public libraries today–that is, open to everyone. Romans had a much narrower definition of public.

29 of these libraries would eventually be built, and the Ulpian Library, built by the emperor Trajan is the most famous. This was something like a gentleman’s club in the 19th century tradition. There was a temple, lecture hall, archive, a library stocked with classic and current books in both Latin and Greek, places to eat, and plenty of reading space.

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