Libraries have been around for centuries and have evolved significantly over time. They offer unrestricted access to knowledge and information. Both children’s and adults’ education depend on them. By making resources available to all people, regardless of wealth, libraries help level the playing field. Additionally, they promote lifelong learning and allow people to explore new interests. They play an essential role in social and community life. They are places where people can gather to learn, share ideas, and connect with others. Libraries also provide vital services to underserved populations, such as immigrants, seniors, low-income families, and people with disabilities. They are not just about books but also about culture and entertainment. Moreover, libraries offer a wide range of cultural experiences, from art exhibits to musical performances to film screenings. They also provide various entertainment options, such as board games, puzzles, and other mind games.
Today, libraries play an essential role in education, culture, and socialisation. Despite our digital age, libraries are still relevant and necessary. For them to remain relevant and advance, libraries must change. Improving user experience, expanding access and engagement, and staying relevant in the digital era is possible.
Recently, we have been reminded that libraries are essentially about and for the people and how they use these institutions to acquire and use knowledge and engage inside a learning community. Hence, efforts are being made to build libraries to partially recapture the library’s historical function as a centre of study, culture, and intellectual community.
The history of libraries
The first libraries was built in antiquity, with Mesopotamia housing the earliest recorded library from around 2600 BC (Roberts, 1997). King Ashurbanipal of Assyria commissioned the establishment of this early library, which had some 30,000 cuneiform tablets with literature covering a range of subjects. The area was dug up between 1851 and 1932. (British Museum, no date).
The development of libraries in the Middle Ages
Libraries continued to develop during the Middle Ages, with many monasteries and cathedrals establishing their libraries. These libraries often contained a mix of religious and secular texts. One of the most famous medieval libraries was the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, which is said to have contained over 700,000 scrolls at its peak (Web Archive, no date).
The Renaissance and the age of enlightenment
During the Renaissance, libraries became increasingly associated with learning and scholarship. Many private individuals began amassing extensive collections of books and manuscripts, which they would open up to scholars for study. The age of enlightenment saw further advances in library science, with new ideas about cataloguing and classification being developed. The Vatican Library in Rome is home to more than 65,000 manuscripts and more than 900,000 printed books, making it one of the wealthiest manuscript repositories in the world. Most writings are in Latin or Greek (History Magazine, no date).
Change begins to emerge.
The fixed-function nature of academic library buildings predominated on university campuses until the 1950s. These structures were built before World War II to support the weight of multi-tier structural stacks of book collections. This forced the division of two stack sections and reading zones. A fixed-function building would thus link the use of floor spaces primarily to the reasons they were initially constructed (Kaser, 1984).
Academic libraries started utilising a modular design after World War II, and by 1960, this architectural style had gained widespread acceptance. The equal rectangles used to separate the floor sections define this design. The floor plan could now be “simply” changed by libraries as needed to adapt for adjustments. The central issue in this case, or better still, the main goal that librarians hoped to achieve with this approach, was flexibility and operational efficiency.
The modern library
The modern library had its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries when public libraries began to be established in cities worldwide. Volunteer organisations or philanthropists typically ran these libraries, and they played an essential role in providing access to knowledge for all members of society. Today, there are over 100 million items held in public libraries worldwide. Libraries must be welcoming and inclusive spaces. They are places where people come to learn, explore, and connect. Hence it has become essential that they offer an array of programming and events that meet the needs of their community. They should offer comfortable seating, plenty of natural light, and a variety of study spaces.
The COVID-19 pandemic further altered how libraries functioned in 2020. Libraries worldwide had to make tough decisions regarding which services to continue offering and which to discontinue temporarily. Most libraries have turned to digital services like e-book lending and other online-only resources.
Since the beginning of civilisation, libraries have evolved considerably. They have changed over time to adapt to societal demands and will do so in the future. Libraries need to change to stay current and boost engagement. Thus, they must adopt new technologies and offer better user experiences. They will be able to offer their customers even more advantages as a result, including improved access to information and education, cultural enrichment, and social possibilities.
Kaser, D. (1984). Twenty-five years of academic library building planning. College & Research Libraries.
Roberts, J. M. (1997) A short history of the world. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Accessed: December 4, 2022).
Survivor: The History of the Library (no date) History magazine. Available at: http://www.history-magazine.com/libraries.html (Accessed: December 2, 2022).
The Great Library of Alexandria? (no date) The Great Library of Alexandria? Heather Phillips. Web Archive. Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20120418191647/http://unllib.unl.edu/LPP/phillips.htm (Accessed: December 5, 2022).
What was Ashurbanipal’s library? (no date) The British Museum. Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/projects/what-was-ashurbanipals-library (Accessed: December 2, 2022).