Libraries: the old, the new, the weird… and the plain disgusting

It’s currently libraries week, a perfect opportunity to meditate on the role that libraries play in our societies, and to confront the ongoing undermining of the library system. In this article, I want to approach the subject a little differently. I’m going to take a brief tour through the history of libraries, from the oldest to the newest, throwing in a handful of facts, curios, and related baggage to season the stew.

The oldest known library was founded in the 7th century B.C. in Nineveh in modern day Iraq by the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, a rare bibliophile ruler who stocked his library with some thirty thousand cuneiform tablets looted from Babylonia and other cities his armies had pulverised. The library’s prized possession: a 4,000-year-old copy of the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ – an epic poem recognised as one of the earliest surviving great works of literature. 

The title of most recognisable library from antiquity, however, goes to the Great Library of Alexandria. Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C., control of Egypt fell to his former general Ptolemy I Soter, who drew up plans for a grand library in the city of Alexandria – though historians believe that it was probably his son Ptolemy II who actually built it. The library, housing some half a million papyrus on shelves known as bibliothekai, made Alexandria a centre of world learning, drawing in the greatest minds of the age (including the likes of Archimedes) and becoming home to seminal works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, and the natural sciences. 

Contrary to popular opinion the library did not vanish in a single fiery cataclysm. Its decline was gradual, the corrosive legacy of a late-Ptolemaic ‘purge of intellectuals’, Roman neglect, and a lack of funding. (You’d be excused for thinking that this sounds all too familiar.)

From antiquity to the modern. 

In 1800, the US Congress established the Library of Congress in Washington D.C, now fondly considered America’s ‘national library’. In 1814, the library was set alight by British troops. Thomas Jefferson donated his personal book collection – some 6000 volumes – to replace the books that had been lost.

Today, the Library of Congress is one of the world’s largest libraries, housing more than 160 million items and the largest rare book collection in North America. That collection includes a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of only three in the world, and a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating back to 2040 B.C, one of the oldest known pieces of writing. In addition, the Library of Congress houses the largest comic book collection in the United States – over six thousand titles. 

And the weirdest items stored in the LOC? How about a lock of Thomas Jefferson’s hair? Or the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he died (two pairs of glasses, a six-blade pocketknife, a quartz-and-gold watch fob, a linen handkerchief with “A. Lincoln” stitched in red, newspaper clippings, and a leather wallet – with, of all things, a $5 Confederate note inside). Or even a five-second video of a man sneezing – the first copyrighted motion picture in the US.

From America to Germany.

Opening in 2011 and with a price tag of 80 million euros, the Stuttgart City Library is possibly the most futuristic-looking library on the planet. Built as a giant cube, it is constructed out of pale grey concrete that visually frames an array of frosted glass bricks. Inside, the minimalist white-on-white colour scheme – designed by Korean architect Yi Eun-young – looks like something from a sci-fi film. Beautiful!

And what about those who use the libraries? 

The eccentricities of library-goers are the pub-banter of librarians all over the world. The users who shoot up in the toilets, or decide to engage in amorous liaisons in the aisles. The ones who pee in quiet corners (yes, it happens!), or sit on public computer terminals nonchalantly surfing porn as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. And let’s not forget those who use the toilets as their personal bathrooms, or those who fall asleep in comfy chairs snoring loud enough to wake the dead. And, increasingly, there are the belligerent gangs of teenagers, the smokers, the closet arsonists, the raucous, the furious, the homeless, the mentally ill. 

Librarians have no choice but to weather every insult, every indiscretion with stoicism. It’s a demanding job.

Meanwhile, the ground beneath their feet continues to erode. It’s no secret that libraries face savage budget cuts. The blame for this is placed on falling public usage and book borrowing. Yet this is a reductive argument, perpetuating a vicious cycle that, ultimately, will rob us of our most egalitarian places.

I grew up in a household where money was scarce and reading was not a priority. The library system enabled me to access books that I wanted to read, and to discover, in time, that I too wanted to be a creator of words. I wrote my first novel aged seventeen, inspired directly by the discovery, in my local library, of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series. Without libraries I would not be an author today.

And that, in a nutshell, is the magic of libraries. 

If you’d like to keep up to date with what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

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