[This article was written by Stone Ridge Library circulation-desk staffer Barbara Goodwin. It was sourced in part from a blog produced by WritersRelief.com.]
In the libraries of yore—and I mean yore—literature and other offerings were written on cuneiform tablets like the one pictured here. If this were still the case today, surely we’d all think twice about the number of holds we’d request at any one time. Also—and this I can’t resist noting—our beloved library would truly be “an old-stone house.”
How long have libraries been around, and how have they changed over the years? Here’s a capsulized tour of how libraries have developed. You’ll move from the library’s inception to its role today as provider of myriad digital resources, community education and performance events, and—still and always—hard-copy books on topics from A to Z.
Research suggests that libraries originated from a need to preserve sales and tax records and other administrative details of running a country. We don’t know exact start-up dates because, well, no libraries existed to store those dates. But a generally agreed-on time puts the first library as appearing about 5,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, an area that covers a large part of the modern-day Middle East. In addition to the earliest library, the Fertile Crescent region also brought us the invention of the wheel, the first planting of cereal crops, and great strides in math, astronomy, and agriculture. Clearly it wasn’t called fertile for nothing!
The earliest known library was founded in Nineveh (now modern-day Iraq) sometime in the seventh century BC—established for the “royal contemplation” of the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. The library stored 30,000 volumes, all clay tablets engraved by scribes using a reed to impress wedge-shaped characters into wet clay. Those characters, called cuneiforms, comprised an ancient writing system developed around 3400 BC and used for some three millennia.
Later, more libraries popped up across the developing world in Egypt, India, and much of Asia. The oldest known still-functioning library is the al-Qarawiyyin library, located in Fez, Morocco. Opened more than 1100 years ago, in 859, al-Qarawiyyin was for centuries accessible only to scholars and theologians. Today, though, it’s open to the public and visited by an international audience. Its oldest literary treasure is the original 9th-century Quran—still in its original binding.
For hundreds of years, libraries were private collections funded by wealthy patrons. Throughout parts of China, libraries were developed and used exclusively by members of the royal families or approved scholars. Knowledge is power, we know—and sometimes, so was a royal bloodline.
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century changed the library forever. Eventually, as books became more available to the working class, private libraries would become accessible to everyone. Yet it still took several hundred years more for public libraries to appear. The first public, tax-supported library in America opened in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1833.
What of the libraries of today and tomorrow? Modern libraries are multi-media resources, but don’t think current or future libraries will ever abandon print books. Yet, as we know, book-filled libraries like our own have already evolved into providing new services and social environments. Librarians and circulation-desk staff are fast becoming technology tutors, helping patrons learn how to use digital resources and increasingly complicated computer systems.
Libraries will continue to change and innovate as they forge their place in our evolving digital world. As they make the transition, some libraries struggle to stay relevant and receive adequate funding. But in a 2016 Pew Research Center survey of attitudes toward libraries, 91 percent of Americans age 16 and older indicated that closing their local library would impact their surrounding community, and 66 percent said that the impact would be major.
Don’t worry. Your local library and libraries across America aren’t going anywhere. Right now the Stone Ridge Library staff is working on a plan to reopen in the near future in a safe but necessarily limited way. Undoubtedly, in the short term, resumption of check-out and return operations will differ from pre-pandemic procedures. But we will resume serving the Marbletown and Rochester communities and indeed all patrons of the Mid-Hudson library system—not only with digital and on-line offerings, but with services that were available before the current pandemic. When and how to reopen are details being worked on. Stay posted on our website and Facebook pages for updates, and check our Route 209 outdoor sign often for information about our upcoming limited reopening.
We’ll be excited to say “Nice to see you again!”
Postscript: The cuneiform tablet seen in this public-domain photograph lists magical stones—you know, magical stones— that could be used for various prophylactic or medical purposes. By the way, if you checked this item out from the Stone Ridge library and then returned it in this condition, you’d almost certainly be asked to pay for a replacement!