Everyone, even people who don’t use public libraries, have an understanding of what a public library is. They may not know the minutiae but they know that they’re a free source of books, information and other resources, readily available to everyone. It wasn’t always the case though and it took many, many years for the modern public library to develop into what it is today.
The very first libraries appeared roughly 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia and were archives of clay tablets that mostly documented commercial transactions and inventories. By the 7th century BC, the Library of Ashurbanipal had a vast collection of clay tablets that were organised using an early library classification system called colophons. Over 30,000 of these clay tablets have survived to the present day, providing scholars a unique glimpse into life of the time.
The most famous library of all time – the Library of Alexandria – was founded during the reign of Ptolemy I and is estimated to have held up to 400,000 scrolls during its peak. Widespread belief is that the library was completely destroyed by fire when Julius Caesar’s soldiers set fire to Egyptian ships docked in port in 48 BC, however Roman Historian Cassius Dio states that only warehouses of books were destroyed, not the library itself. The library dwindled over the coming centuries due to lack of funding and support and is ultimately believed to have been destroyed in the Palmyrene invasion that occurred between 270 and 275 AD.
Books flourished in the following centuries thanks to several religious and philosophical movements such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, as well as Humanism and many of these groups had their own library collections. These however were usually private and not for the general public as books were considered extremely valuable due to the labour-intensive process of copying them by hand to reproduce them. Monastery libraries often chained their books to the shelves to safe guard them and whilst this resulted in a very emo-punk vibe for these libraries, it didn’t make borrowing books very easy!
It was in the 1800s that the modern public library was born. In 1854 the Melbourne Public Library was established – Australia’s oldest public library and one of the first free libraries in the world (SLNSW likes to claim that they’re the oldest but they were a subscription library until 1869 and therefore lose the title). The Melbourne Public Library was open to anyone over 14 years of age, so long as they had clean hands, which was a most important requirement!
1963 was a momentous year for Public Libraries because that was the year that the Bindoon Library was opened (yes, I’m biased. No, I won’t apologise for that fact!). It has evolved a lot from the tiny reading nook that it was back then to the vibrant, colourful space that it is today but the sense of community that is at its core has never changed.
Ultimately, we have to consider ourselves privileged here in WA that we have free access to over 233 public libraries. Not everyone in the world is so lucky.