J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Library of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Explore some of the most significant libraries from the ancient and modern world, including the largest, the oldest and the most technologically advanced, as well as those with unique collections, architecture or locations.
Great Libraries of the Past
Perhaps one of the best-known libraries of ancient times is the Library of Alexandria. Founded in 228 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt, this library housed 700,000 scrolls. Many famous thinkers of the time studied or worked in the library, including the astronomers Aristarchus and Eratosthenes, the poet Callimachus, the mathematician Euclid, the scientist Herophilus and the historian Manetho. The library survived for six centuries, but slowly disappeared after a fire and numerous invasions and wars. The library was gone by 400 A.D. But after years of scholars pushing for the revival of the great library, on Oct. 16, 2002, Egypt celebrated the opening of the New Library of Alexandria, designed to rival the original.
About a hundred years after the great Library of Alexandra was formed, another great library was established. After the ruler of Egypt banned the export of papyrus (the plant used to make paper), it is thought that parchment was developed in the city of Pergamum—in modern-day Turkey—which made possible the copying of books outside of Egypt, and the development of the Library at Pergamum. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, eventually the library, along with the entire city, was turned over to Rome, and some think that its collection was given to Cleopatra to become part of the Library of Alexandria.
Predating the libraries at Pergamum and Alexandria was the Library of King Ashurbanipal at the city of Nineveh. In the 600s B.C., Ashurbanipal established a great library housing tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets. The library had many of the same characteristics of a modern library; for example texts, were organized by subject matter, government documents were also held in the library and there were citations explaining what sets of tablets and rooms contained. Eventually the library was buried during an invasion, and although Ashurbanipal’s library was not the first library, it was one of the largest of its time, and one of the first libraries to implement cataloging as we use today.