Clay tablets in the digital age: the remarkable history of public libraries

In public libraries across the country, from grand downtown buildings to those in small regional towns, Australians have free access to more than 37.5 million items.

These are just physical items like books or magazines – there are millions of other digital items on offer, as well as a host of other materials and services.

But these institutions, which form a vital part of many communities, may never have existed.

There are over 1,600 public library outlets in Australia, including this one in Green Square, Sydney.(Supplied: K Griffiths for the City of Sydney)

While societies have collected texts for millennia, the idea of ​​a true public library is actually something relatively new.

“[When it comes to] free access to books for any citizen who wants to go and borrow… [It’s only] in the mid-19th century that something like this happened,” Andrew Pettegree, a historian at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told ABC RN’s Saturday Extra.

Professor Pettegree has written a new book with fellow historian Arthur der Weduwen called The Library: A Fragile History, which explores the history of these institutions.

So how exactly did your local public library come into existence?

Ancient beginnings

In his book, Professor Pettegree traces the history of libraries back to ancient Mesopotamia in the Middle East.

There, the royalty of the Assyrian Empire amassed and stored large collections of clay tablets, with one such library in the 7th century BCE containing over 30,000 items.

But there were no clay library cards that came with them – these collections were only for the use of royalty and their scholars.

An illustration of an old library with people and clay tablets.
The Assyrian Royal Library at Nineveh contained over 30,000 clay tablets.(Getty Images: Universal History Archive)

Clay tablets were later replaced by the much lighter mediums of parchment and papyrus, meaning that bookcases could grow considerably in size.

In the 3rd century BCE, the colossal Library of Alexandria in Egypt opened, where up to 500,000 scrolls were made available to the elite scholars of the time.

The ancient Romans also built libraries, which Professor Pettegree said were a place where ‘great men could show off their wealth…rather than a facility for citizens’.

It was a trend that would continue for thousands of years.

Libraries of the world

Professor Pettegree also explains how, throughout Persia, India and China, “the collecting of beautiful manuscripts, adorned with elegant decorations, lavish colors and superb calligraphy, was a favorite pastime of princes and emperors”.

And from the 7th century CE, Muslim caliphs like those of Baghdad, Damascus, Cordoba and Cairo assembled libraries “famous in the Islamic world for their size”.

In Central America, the Maya and Aztec civilizations also had important collections of books and archives, but these were systematically destroyed by Spanish settlers.

A large monastery library with white and gold elements.
Monasteries have built up collections of books over the centuries.(Unsplash)

Meanwhile, in Europe, as Christianity spread, monasteries housed important libraries as well as “scriptoriums”, or writing rooms where texts could be reproduced by hand.

Then in the 14th and 15th centuries, developments around paper and printing changed everything.

“[Paper and printing] are what allow books to be multiplied as the joy of owning books can finally be diffused outside of institutions…into the hands of private collectors,” says Professor Pettegree.

But he adds that the only consistent thing in the history of libraries is inconsistency.

“Through all stages of the development of civilizations, libraries have a pattern of success and growth, followed by steps backwards – as they are either battered by historical events or simply outdated.”

A “seismic shift”

In the 1700s there was a “seismic shift” around libraries, says Professor Pettegree, which laid the foundations for the public libraries we know today.

This era saw the birth of “subscription libraries” or private libraries that were largely restricted to paying members. These members-only libraries were popular in the Americas and also throughout Europe.

A black and white illustration of people in a 1700s United States subscription library.
The first subscription library in the United States was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.(Getty Images: Universal History Archive)

Professor Pettegree says that in subscription libraries friends would gather and read books not only ‘for self-instruction and self-improvement, but also novels for entertainment’.

“It marked the beginning of a development where libraries are not simply tools for scholarship,” he says.

“People were beginning to think – and this is the fundamental change that will eventually lead to the public library – of books as a form of recreation, relaxation and entertainment.”

The steel baron turned philanthropist

Public library movements grew in the 1800s, and some philanthropists and businessmen lent their support to the idea.

“Many of the earliest public libraries were donated by people who had made their fortunes in some form of industry,” says Professor Pettegree.

But he says one man stands out: Scottish-born American steel baron Andrew Carnegie, who “brought little romanticism to library affairs, but much of the clear-headed rationality with which he made his fortune “.

“Instead of a ‘great man’s library’ with Roman columns and a grand interior staircase, it would give [communities] a simple building for one librarian,” says Professor Pettegree.

“He said, ‘I’ll give your local community $10,000 to build you a library. But in return, you have to commit the annual sum of $1,000 to maintain it and provide books and staff “.”

The industrialist then donated 2,500 bookcases to communities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

This paved the way for what Professor Pettegree calls “the great age of the public library”, which he dates from 1880 to 1960.

During these years, the idea of ​​public libraries open to all spread throughout the world and millions of people had access to millions of texts.

Public libraries in Australia

The Melbourne Public Library (now known as the the State Library Victoria) was established in 1854, making it Australia’s first public library and one of the first free public libraries in the world.

Library materials indicate that its founders “believed that access to knowledge was essential for the development of a civil and prosperous community, and [they] established the library as “the people’s university”. “

In his book, Professor Pettegree examines how, in the 1970s, Australia was one of the first countries “to grapple with the question…whether books would catch up with the world before progress caught up with books “.

Then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam commissioned respected librarian Allan Horton to find solutions. His report, Libraries are awesome mate! But they could be biggerrecommended that libraries become community hubs.

Australian libraries have continued to grow and prosper. According to latest statistical report National and State Libraries of Australasia (NSLA) which covered 2019-2020, there are over 1,600 public library outlets in Australia (including branch, mobile library and other types).

In one year, there were over 107.9 million loans of physical items and over 34 million loans, downloads and retrievals from electronic collections.

And Australians seem to love their libraries – with over 9.3 million registered members, representing over 36% of the total Australian population.

Struggle with modernity

Professor Pettegree says the death of the public library was predicted almost as much as the death of the book, but it didn’t happen.

But could the digital age finally sound the death knell for libraries?

Two people are sitting next to shelves with many colorful books.
Sydney’s Green Square Library is one of the city’s newest libraries.(Provided: Katherine Griffiths for the City of Sydney)

“I am less worried about the future than many futurists. Every development like radio, then cinema, then television was accompanied by a lot of catastrophism [around the role of books and libraries] … But in fact, [these new inventions] found a sort of synergy with the books,” he says.

“Libraries will have to continue to reinvent themselves and make themselves relevant to the communities they serve. But in fact, it’s the story of the library throughout history that we tell.”

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Edward K. Thompson