The very earliest libraries are believed to have been built around five thousand years ago, with the first human efforts to organize collections of documents. These took the form of clay tablets in cuneiform script about an inch thick, in various shapes and sizes.
Mud-like clay was placed in the wooden frames, and the surface was smoothed for writing and allowed to dry until damp. After being inscribed, the clay dried in the sun, or for a harder finish, was baked in a kiln.
According to research, the word “library” originated in Latin, from the word Libraria, meaning “place storing books” and the Latin liber, meaning “book,” whereas a Latinized Greek word, bibliotheca, is the origin of the word for library in German, Russian, and the Romance languages.
It is believed that the first libraries appeared five thousand years ago in Southwest Asia’s Fertile Crescent, an area that ran from Mesopotamia to the Nile. The world’s oldest known library is believed to be The Library of Ashurbanipal. which was founded sometime in the 7th century B.C. for the “royal contemplation” of the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. Located in Nineveh in modern day Iraq, the site included a trove of some 30,000 cuneiform tablets organized according to subject matter. The library, named after Ashurbanipal, in fact the last great king of the Assyrian Empire, is a collection of more than 30,000 clay tablets and fragments containing contemporary texts of all kinds, including a number in various languages.
The texts themselves–from both Babylonia and Assyria–include a wide variety of documents, both administrative (legal documents such as contracts), and literary, including the famous Gilgamesh myth. Subject matter included Astronomy, Divinatory, Epics (Gilgamesh, Anzu myth, the Epic of Creation, literary myths about Ashurbanipal himself), Historical, Medicine, Lexical (syllabaries and archaic word lists, grammatical texts) and Religion.
Almost all of the material recovered from the library currently resides in the British Museum, mostly because the objects were found by two British archaeologists working at Nineveh, in excavations funded by the Museum itself.
The development of libraries here in Great Britain and in Ireland is believed to have begun over some 1500 years ago, playing an important role as a part of our social, intellectual and cultural history.
Public libraries began to appear in Britain in the mid-19th Century, in the aftermath of the Public Libraries Act of 1850. Chetham’s Library in Manchester was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in Britain. Finally, The British Library came into existence in 1973, as a result of the British Library Act.
Vicky Chilton is