In The Beginning

The concern for the preservation of documentary material has existed since the inception of writing itself. The first evidence of writing in the western world comes from the Sumerian and Egyptian empires dating back to about 3200 B.C. Numerous inscribed clay tablets, the medium of choice throughout early Mesopotamian civilization, have been unearthed across the region from many archaelogical sites revealing the presence of a surprisingly large amount libraries. These early libraries were organized collections of tablets that were essential to the commercial, governmental and religious activities of the community. The extremely durable nature of the tablets negated any need to preserve them from deterioration. The primary preservation concern therefore, beyond conquest and pillage, was the effective organization and storage that would allow easy access to the information contained on the tablets. The libraries of tablets excavated at Ebla, in Syria (c. 2000 B.C.) and in Ninevah (c. 700 B.C.) reveal the great concern given to storage and even cataloging. The Library at Ninevah, sponsored by the Assyrian King and passionate collector of texts Assurbanipal, was an excellent example of a "true" library, one that is arranged by subject matter and available through a primitive catalog. The clay tablets were kept in earthen jars, baskets or wooden chests, which in turn were kept in orderly rows on shelves. Each tablet contained a colophon or an identification inscription which indicated its particular jar, shelf and room while on the walls of each room, beside the door was a list of the works to be found within that room. Furthermore, something resembling a subject catalog or even a descriptive bibliography was found on special tablets that were apparently kept alongside the shelves in each room facillitating swift retrieval of desired texts. The colophons also contained severe warnings for those who may have been tempted to steal or destroy the tablets by threatening deadly retaliation from the king or the wrath of one of many vengeful gods.

ebla_archive.jpgRe-creation of tablet shelving

GenSodomEbla1.pngSample of tablets found at Ebla

The Egyptians and Hebrews

Although durable, clay tablets were rather bulky and clumsy as well as restricted by the amount of space that was available for inscribed text. The widespread use of relatively long scrolls of papyrus along the Nile river and of parchment within ancient Palestine allowed for greater flexibility for authors and scribes but sacrificed the longevity of their texts. Consequently, evidence of the ancient libraries within these regions, such as the collection of Ramses II or the Tabernacle at Shiloh is scant at best. It should be noted however that the three primary writing mediums: tablet, papyrus and parchment were all used throughout the ancient world to varying degrees with clay being the only one able to survive the ravages of time. The practice of entombing scrolls within the funerary chambers of certain Egyptian notables was the main reason for the survival of any of their ancient scrolls, while a scroll which was tightly rolled and placed within an earthen jar and tucked away in a secret and secure location was the preservation strategy of choice for the Hebrews. The convoluted history of the region containing many periods of violence and instability eventually devoured the fragile texts of these regions which were not

Fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls which were encased in jars and buried inside a cave

Replica of an earthenware jar used for storing papyrus or leather scrolls

The Hellenistic Era (323 B.C. - 30 B.C.)

It was during this period that the two greatest libraries of the ancient world existed. The libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum were highly competitive and severely jealous of one another which motivated both institutions to enhance and expand their collections. The battle for prestige resulted in the attempt of the Alexandrians to collect literally every book in the world and subsequently translate them into Greek. In order to accomplish this, they resorted to some unique and rather harsh strategies. According to Luciano Canfora in The Vanished Library "any books on board ships calling at Alexandria were to be copied and the originals kept and the copies given to their owners." (1) The texts were then to be inspected and repaired and all bibliographic data was recorded and cataloged. The process of copying and translation was carried out by the Charakitai, or as Canfora describes them: "a race of bookish scribblers " (2) who spent their whole, well-fed lives dedicated to the reproduction and translation of every text available.

The libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum represent a significant development in the evolution of library function. Up until this time, ancient libraries were either private collections or government storehouses where legal, religious or commercial documents were kept for official reference, the impetus behind them being one of safekeeping rather than of curiosity or enlightenment.(3) Curiously, the rivalry between the two took an interesting turn when the Ptolemies of Egypt restricted the export of papyrus in an attempt to destroy the scholarly capabilities of their rivals in Asia Minor. The response by those in Pergamum was the refinement and expansion of their parchment production which ultimately did not gain them any prestige over the Alexandrians but would have an influence on the rise of the leather codex as the ultimate form of the book in the following centuries.

The racks, or "pigeonholes" where the scrolls were stored at Alexandria. The ones considered most valuable were encased within linen or leather sheathes and all were classified according to the subject headings designed by the Librarian Callimachus such as mathematics, medicine, astronomy, geometry and philology.

From Scroll to Codex: The Christian Era and Monastic Libraries

The form of the book that we are familiar with today has its roots in the centuries following the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire that witnessed the birth of the Christian Church. The first codex was most likely created at Pergamum where the shortage of papyrus and the relative expense of animal skin necessitated the use of both sides of the page. The Romans also utilized simple wood and wax codexes for temporary scribbling and personal notebooks but it was in fact the rise of the Christian church that stimulated the evolution of the book as we know it.(4) The pasting of flat sheets of plant fibers or of leather in order to form a scroll gave way to the sewing of folded sheets between covers that enabled a substantial increase in the number of pages that could be bound together and easily accessed. The use of parchment eventually displaced the papyrus completely by the end of the sixth century due to its durability and versatility in handling colored inks and possessing the capability of being erased and reused. St. Benedict (480-585), considered to be the founder of Western Christian monasticism was largely responsible for the copying and preservation of manuscripts that occurred during the Middle Ages. The strict rules of the Benedictine order established the priority for books and their preservation in the path toward Christian scholarship as well as insisting that monks have easy access to reading and writing materials. The Library and the scriptorium were thus essential to monastic life throughout the Middle ages where monks were required to spend many hours reading, translating and transcribing Greek and Latin manuscripts. The scriptorium not only provided texts for its own library's use but for other distant monasteries or for local ecclesiastical and political leaders as well(5). Once a text was copied and bound it would then be stored, at first on their sides, in locked wardrobes known as armoria in order to protect them from the cold and damp conditions of the unheated monasteries and later on placed upright upon shelves and chained to a rod above a lectern in order to provide a high level of security for the books that had become valuable commodities. Eventually, this idea of shelving chained books above lecturns became the norm for most medieval libraries and marked the beginnings of what would later become the modern bookcase centered library. Chaining was not the only evidence of the considerable care taken by medieval libraries in order to safeguard their collections. Rules preventing the carrying of lanterns to ward off the danger of fire were very common as were guidelines designed for proper storage such as those from a priory in England which required "that the books be ranged so as to be separated from one another for fear that they may be packed so close as to injure each other or delay those who want them".(6).

Record Keeping In Padua

Up until this time there had not been any distinction between library and archive nor would there be until well into the sixteenth century. Existing evidence however of the meticulous record-keeping practices of government officials in Padua from 1263-1420 offer some interesting details of Italian city's medieval records management and of their secular official's awareness of archives as important tools for administration.
The rules that they followed stipulated that important official texts must be produced in four copies and kept within four separate offices while additional copies of more vital documents were to be kept within the local monasteries. Furthermore, the records must be arranged into a "strong wardrobe" provided with two locks and that an archival list be available in two copies.

An example of a book or codex that would be produced in a monastic scriptorium

Good example of Medieval library security that originated within the monastery as well as the
clear, indication of an early bookcase

The Renaissance to the Modern World

The rise of Universities followed by the great Humanist movement spawned by the Italian Renaissance led to great enthusiasm for scholarship and an increasing desire for the creation of significant repositories of important texts. The increasing number of affluent and influential bibliophiles were more than happy to engage in this process which was only magnified by Gutenberg's moveable type. The rapidly increasing quantity of books combined with drastically reduced cost along with growing universities, rising nationalism and national pride ultimately led to what has been described as the "Golden Age of Libraries" from 1600-1700 in which nations were desirous of outdoing each other in the vastness and grandeur of their collections. Notable institutions from this period include the Bodleian at Oxford, the Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris and the National central Library in Rome. Every institution as well as the individual collector were aware of the enemies of books including neglect, overuse, pests, and dampness . Most preservation strategies centered around the repair and rebinding of highly used texts, employing the use of curtains to prohibit buildup of dust and debris and of security. The institutions of the time were known to have severe borrowing restrictions typically requiring a deposit, or an oath swearing to return in good condition and in a timely manner. All in all however there was no universally recognized or systematically employed preservation regimen beyond the individual collector or institution fixing that which was presented right in front of them.

Up until this time there had been liitle distinction between the library and the archive, but beginning in the sixteenth centruy there had grown throughout Europe a nationalisticly inspired desire to collect and compile a national heritage based on historical records. The systematic collection and care of the primary sources describing the people and events that engender national pride would formally be recognized following the French Revolution toward the end of the eighteenth century. The three major contributions to the development of archival preservation that resulted were:

1. The establishment in France of an independent, national system of archival administration
2. The proclamation of principle for public access to records
3. Recognition of the responsibility of the state for the care of the valuable cultural resource represented by its records.

This new sensibility was exemplified by the life of Ebenezer Hazard (1744-1817) who was the first American to attempt to preserve the documentary heritage of the then fledgeling nation. "The time seemed right for the establishment of a printed collection of archives and he sought to clarify the idea of preserving against all hazards of man and nature the basic, fundamental records on which the story of his forebears and of his generation certainly rest"(7).

His primary strategy echoed that of the medieval scriptorium in that he insisted that the multiplication of copies and the storage in a centralized location was the most desirable and effective means of preservation. His passion and determination to safeguard the important historical documents that he perceived would be essential for future historians had a lasting effect on Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798). Belknap would later be one of the founding members of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the first repository of its kind devoted to the collection and preservation for future generations and the prototype for many subsequent Historical Societies.


Canfora, Luciano. The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Harris, Michael. The History Of Libraries in the Western World. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press Inc., 1984.
Lerner, Frederick Andrew. The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age. New York: Continuum, 1998.
Manguel, Alberto. The Library At Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
Shelley, Fred. "Ebenezer Hazard: America's First Historical Editor." William and Mary Quarterly 12 no. 1 (1955): 44-73.

1. Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 21.
2. Ibid., 37.
3.Alberto Manguel,The Library At Night (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 20.
4.Frederick Andrew Learner. The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age (Newy York: Continuum, 1998), 35.
5.Ibid., 46.
6.Ibid., 87.
7.Fred Shelley, "Ebenezer Hazard: America's First Historical Editor," William and Mary Quarterly 12 no. 1 *1955) 48.