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Libraries: A Brief History

For a workout of the body, people hit the gym; but where does one go to work out for the mind? As Hermione Granger puts it: “…to the library”!

Generally, the term library strikes our minds with the idea of a large quiet room with tall book-stacked shelves from floor to ceiling and reading tables stretched across its length. However, libraries come is all shapes sizes and can even mean that there are no four-wall boundaries to demarcate its physical existence.

A library is a collection of sources of information and similar resources, made accessible to a defined community for reference or borrowing. It provides physical or digital access to a physical building or room, or a virtual space, or both. A library’s collection can include books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, films, maps, prints, documents, CDs, cassettes, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-ray Discs, e-books, audiobooks, databases, and other formats. Libraries range in size from a few shelves of books to several million items.

The first libraries consisted of archives of the earliest form of writing—the clay tablets in cuneiform script discovered in temple rooms in Sumersome dating back to 2600 BC. The Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world.

Private or personal libraries made up of written books (as opposed to the state or institutional records kept in archives) appeared in classical Greece in the 5th century BC. In the Early Middle Ages, monastery libraries developed, such as the important one at the Abbey of Montecassino in Italy. Books were usually chained to the shelves, reflecting the fact that manuscripts, which were created via the labour-intensive process of hand copying, were valuable possessions.

By the 9th century, public libraries started to appear in many Islamic cities. They were called “house of knowledge” or dar al-‘ilm. They were each endowed by Islamic sects with the purpose of representing their tenets as well as promoting the dissemination of secular knowledge. After the onset of Renaissance, the 16th and 17th centuries saw privately endowed libraries assemble in Rome.

Private subscription libraries functioned in much the same manner as commercial subscription libraries, though they varied in many important ways. One of the most popular versions of the private subscription library was a gentleman’s only library. Membership was restricted to the proprietors or shareholders, and ranged from a dozen or two to between four and five hundred.The Liverpool Subscription Library was a gentlemen only library.

Andrew Carnegie played an important role in financing public libraries across the English-speaking world. He alone built nearly 2000 libraries in the US, 660 Carnegie Libraries in Britain, in addition to many more in the Commonwealth.

Today, as we know it, libraries are common all over the world, maintained by governments as well as private firms, educational institutions, local communities etc. Rules and customs varying with the geographical location and purpose of the library and also the kind of members it has. Despite the internet bringing a massive database of information right into people’s hands libraries still hold a special place for people with the love of reading and those who believe in the more conventional style of research and exploration.

The concept of Street Library is quite a new one: initiated with the intention of promoting reading for all, which includes the likes of street dwellers as well as random pedestrians. A street library is not bound by the rules of borrowing and returning; nor do people have to adhere to any terms and conditions and pay a subscription fee. This is why street libraries are also commonly termed ‘free libraries’.

One notable pioneer of this concept came from a man named Todd Bol from Hudson, Wisconsin, USA. In 2009, Todd built a model of a one room schoolhouse. It was a tribute to his mother who was a teacher who loved to read. He filled it with books and put it on a post in his front yard. His neighbors and friends loved it, so he built several more and gave them away.
UW-Madison’s Rick Brooks (retired from Little Free Library in 2014) saw Bol’s do-it-yourself project while they were discussing potential social enterprises. Together, the two saw opportunities to achieve a variety of goals for the common good.They were inspired by community gift-sharing networks, “take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and public spaces, and most especially by Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie’s goal inspired Brooks and Bol to set their own goal of surpassing 2,508 Little Free Libraries by the end 2013. They wound up exceeding that goal in August of 2012, a year and a half before their target date.

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