From Academic Kids

Alternative meanings: Library (computer science), Library (electronics), Library (biology)
Modern-style library
Modern-style library

In its traditional sense, a library is a collection of books and periodicals. It can refer to an individual's private collection, but more often, it is a large collection that is funded and maintained by a city or institution. This collection is often used by people who choose not to, or can not afford to purchase an extensive collection themselves. However, with the collection or invention of media other than books for storing information, many libraries are now also repositories and/or access points for maps, prints or other artwork, microfilm, microfiche, audio tapes, CDs, LPs, video tapes and DVDs, and provide public facilities to access CD-ROM databases and the Internet.

Thus, modern libraries are increasingly being redefined as places to get unrestricted access to information in many formats and from many sources.


Etymology of the word

The word is derived from Latin liber, which means "book." Derivations from the Greek Bibliotheke (from Biblos, book) are used in at least German, French, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Dutch, and of course Modern Greek. Other languages, such as Icelandic, Finnish, Estonian and Persian, use words that derive from their own words for book (Bokasafn, Kirjasto, and Raamatukogu and Ketabkhaneh, respectively). Some European languages use a cognate of library to mean bookshop.

  • For more translations of the word, see the Wiktionary entry for library: [1] (
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One of two traditional Research Rooms in the main branch of the New York Public Library, now equipped with modern computers


The first libraries were only partly libraries, being composed for the most part of the unpublished records that make up archives. Archaeological findings from the diggings of the ancient city-states of Sumer have revealed temple rooms full of clay tablets in cuneiform script. These archives were made up nearly completely of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, with only a few documents touching theological matters or legends. Things were much the same in the Papyrus based government records of Ancient Egypt.

Private or personal libraries made up of non-fiction and fiction books, (as opposed to the state or institutional records kept in archives) first appeared in classical Greece. The first ones appeared some time near the 5th century before our era. They were filled with parchment scrolls and later on papyrus scrolls. There were a few institutional or royal libraries like the Library of Alexandria, which were open to an educated public but on the whole, collections were private. In those rare cases where it was possible for a scholar to consult library books there seems to have been no direct access to the stacks. In all recorded cases the books were kept in a relatively small room where the staff went to get them for the readers, who had to consult them in an adjoining hall or covered walkway.

Little is known about early Chinese libraries, save what is written about the imperial library which began with the Qin Dynasty. One of the curators of the imperial library in the Han Dynasty is believed to have been the first to establish a library classification system and the first book notation system. At this time the library catalog was written on scrolls of fine silk and stored in silk bags.

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The Geisel Library at UCSD, with its unique architecture is a landmark.

In Persia many libraries were established by the Zoroastrian elite and the Persian Kings. Among the first ones was a royal library in Isfahan. One of the most important public libraries established around 666 AD in south-western Iran was the Library of Gundishapur. It was a part of a bigger scientific complex located at the Academy of Gundishapur.

During the Early Middle Ages, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and before the rise of the large Christian monastery libraries, Islamic libraries knew a period of great expansion in the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily and Spain. Like the Christian libraries they mostly contained books which were of a codex or modern form instead of scrolls. By the 8th century first Iranians and then Arabs had imported the craft of paper making from China, with a mill already at work in Baghdad in 794. By the 9th century completely public libraries started to appear in many Islamic cities. They were called "halls of Science" or dar al-'ilm. They were each endowed by Islamic sects (many of which have disappeared or become less important in our times) with the purpose of representing their tenets as well as promoting the dissemination of secular knowledge. The libraries often employed translators and copyists in large numbers, in order to render into Arabic the bulk of the available Persian, Greek and Roman non-fiction and the classics of literature. After but a few centuries most of these libraries were destroyed by Mongolian invasion and violent strife between the sects in the larger cities of the Islamic world. But by then much of their contents had been copied in the more tranquil settlements in Spain and Sicily, and from there they often made their way to Christian Europe. One of the oldest libraries in the Middle East which is still operational and expanding is the Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi in the Iranian city of Mashhad with a history of over six centuries.

The first public libraries in the west were established under the Roman Empire as each succeeding emperor strove to open one or many which outshone that of his predecessor. Unlike the Greek libraries readers had direct access to the scrolls, which were kept on shelves built into the walls of a large room. Reading or copy was normally done in the room itself. The records give only a few instances of lending features. As a rule Roman public libraries were bilingual: they had a Latin room and a Greek room. Most of the large Roman baths were also cultural centers, built from the start with a library, with the usual two room arrangement for Greek and Latin texts.

The medieval library arose very directly from the fact that books were valuable possessions, were therefore likely to be stolen, and were far too expensive for most people to own. Its architecture derived from the need to chain these books, first to lecterns and later to armaria and shelves, in areas that were illuminated by sunlight. Early libraries were located in monastic cloisters associated with scriptoria and were collections of lecterns with books chained to them. Shelves built above and between back-to-back lecterns were the beginning of bookpresses. The chain was attached at the fore-edge of a book rather than to its spine. Book presses came to be arranged in carrels (perpendicular to the walls and therefore to the windows) in order to maximize lighting, with low bookcases in front of the windows. This stall system (fixed bookcases perpendicular to exterior walls pierced by closely spaced windows) was characteristic of English institutional libraries. In Continental libraries, bookcases were arranged parallel to and against the walls. This wall system was first introduced on a large scale in Spain's El Escorial.

As books became cheaper, the need for chaining them lessened, but as the number of books in libraries increased, so did the need for compact storage and access with adequate lighting, giving birth to the stack system, which involved keeping a library's collection of books in a space separate from the reading room, an arrangement which arose in the 19th century. Book stacks quickly evolved into a fairly standard form in which the cast iron and steel frameworks supporting the bookshelves also supported the floors, which often were built of translucent blocks to permit the passage of light (but were not transparent, for reasons of modesty). With the introduction of electrical lighting, the use of glass floors was largely discontinued, though floors were still often composed of metal grating to allow air to circulate in multi-story stacks.

Ultimately, even more space was needed, and a method of moving shelves on tracks ("compact shelving") was introduced to cut down on otherwise wasted aisle space.

Types of libraries

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Many libraries are comfortable places for reading and studying.

Libraries can be divided into categories by several methods:

  • by the entity (institution, municipality, or corporate body) that supports or perpetuates it
    • private libraries
    • corporate libraries
    • federal libraries
    • academic libraries
    • historical society libraries
  • by the type of documents or materials it holds
    • digital libraries
    • picture (photograph) libraries
    • slide libraries
    • tool libraries
  • by the subject matter of documents it holds
    • architecture libraries
    • fine arts libraries
    • military libraries
    • law libraries
  • by the users it serves
    • military communities
  • by traditional professional divisions:
    • Academic libraries -- These libraries are located on the campuses of colleges and universities and serve primarily the students and faculty of that and other academic institutions.
    • School libraries -- Most public and private primary and secondary schools have libraries designed to support the curriculum.
    • Public libraries or public lending libraries -- These libraries provide service to the general public and make at least some of their books available for borrowing, so that readers may use them at home over a period of days or weeks. Many public libraries also serve as community organizations that provide free services and events to the public, particularly children.
    • Special libraries -- All other libraries fall into this category by default. Many private businesses and public organizations, including hospitals, museums, research laboratories, law firms, and many government departments and agencies, maintain their own libraries for the use of their employees in doing specialized research related to their work. Special libraries may or may not be accessible to some identified part of the general public.

Also, the governments of most major countries support national libraries. Two noteworthy examples are the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Library.


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Libraries invariably contain long aisles with rows and rows of books.

Libraries usually have nearly every item they own arranged in a specified order according to a library classification system, so that particular items may be located quickly and collections may be browsed efficiently. Some libraries have additional galleries beyond the public ones, where reference materials are stored. These reference stacks may be open to selected members of the public; others require patrons to submit a "stack request," which is a request for a librarian to find the material in the stacks and bring it out to the patron. Libraries often feature a professional librarian working from a reference desk or other central location to help users find what they are looking for.

Library use

Many potential library patrons nevertheless do not know how to use a library effectively. This can be due to lack of early exposure, shyness, or are anxious and fearful of displaying ignorance. These problems drove the emergence of the library instruction movement, which advocates library user education. Library instruction has been practiced in the U.S. since the 19th century; one of the early leaders was John Cotton Dana, and an example of a more recent leader is Michael Lorenzen. Library instruction is closely related to the study of information literacy.

Libraries must inform the public of what materials are available in their collections, and the public must know how to access that information. Before the computer age, this was accomplished by the card catalog -- a piece of wooden or metal furniture containing many drawers, each filled with standard-sized index cards identifying books and other materials. In a large library, the card catalog units often filled a large room, or else lined most hallways in the building. The emergence of the Internet, however, has led to the adoption of electronic catalog databases (often referred to as "webcats" or as OPACs, for "online public access catalog"), which allow users to search the library's holdings from any location with Internet access. This style of catalog maintenance is compatible with new types of libraries, such as digital libraries and distributed libraries, as well as older libraries that have been retrofitted.

Library management

Basic tasks in library management include the planning of acquisitions (which materials the library should acquire, by purchase or otherwise), library classification of acquired materials, preservation of materials (especially rare and fragile archival materials such as manuscripts), patron borrowing of materials, and developing and administering library computer systems. More long-term issues include the planning of the construction of new libraries or extensions to existing ones, and the development and implementation of outreach services and reading-enhancement services (such as adult literacy and children's programming).

Funding problems

In the United States, among other countries, libraries in financially-strapped communities are in the precarious position of being relatively expensive, but justifiably less crucial to the community than absolute necessities, such as police, firefighters, schools, and particularly health care. (Closing libraries to fund police forces might be viewed as false economy if the library system keeps a large percentage of the population's youth occupied, the argument being that it helps keep them "off the street" and out of trouble, and perhaps reduces the crime rate by helping improve the overall education level of the local populace.)

At any rate, many communities are beginning to feel they have no option but to close down or reduce the capability of their library systems to balance their budgets. In December 2004, Salinas, California, became the first city in the United States to completely close down its entire library system. Many other communities are dangerously close to a similar outcome.

Library of Alenon (built c.1800)
Library of Alenon (built c.1800)

Some famous libraries

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Other libraries:

Some libraries devoted to a single subject:

For more extensive lists, see


  • Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Lerner, Fred. The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Ages. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1998.

See also

External links


de:Bibliothek eo:Biblioteko es:Biblioteca fr:Bibliothque hu:Knyvtr (intzmny) id:Perpustakaan ja:図書館 nl:Bibliotheek nn:Bibliotek pl:Biblioteka simple:Library fi:Kirjasto ja informaatiotieteet ru:Библиотека sv:Bibliotek tl:Aklatan zh-cn:图书馆


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