Autobiographical note: I love books; they make me incredibly happy. I have a personal library that is larger than that of most people my age and ever-growing.* I am overly proud of the fact that not a single one of the books I own is brain candy of any kind. (That’s what I have TV for.) I have read probably 2/3 of what I own and any book that I know for certain I will never read again,** gets passed on to a new home. My library is extensive and odd.
The concept of libraries in the sense that they are repositories for written materials dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerians had rooms in temples specifically for storing tablets — mostly detailing transactions and inventory, but some chronicling theological, legal and historical processes. The Egyptians and Assyrians dedicated rooms to their papyrus scrolls and clay tablets respectively as well.
The practice of building private libraries (made up of history, literature, theology, philosophy, etc. as opposed to archival records) came into fashion in Greece during the 5th century BC, but it was the Egyptians who revolutionized the concept of the library by making it public.
The most famous library in antiquity, the Library of Alexandria, founded in 300 BC, was the first public library, open to anyone with the proper literary or scholastic qualifications. Though not all of its acquisitions were made honorably, at its height, the library at Alexandria housed 750,000 scrolls, though scholars agree that there were many duplicates as there were not 750,000 works in existence at the time.
By the time of Caesar Augustus, there were three public libraries in Rome and the concept spread through the west due to the holdings of the republic. Much of what was in the Roman libraries was acquired through the spoils of war (rather than just sort of taking new tomes from visitors in Alexandria the way the Ptolomies acquired many of the works for the Library of Alexandria.) By the time of Seneca, a private library was a status symbol, something that anyone with money and standing must possess, whether they could read or not.***
As a side note: Adding to the thesis I could write on how far back the Church set the western world during the medieval times, after the close of the classical period in the sixth century, with the Church firmly established as the government, many works of antiquity were erased, as it were. The scrolls were washed to be reused when the works were no longer considered useful.****
*I bought two books at the charity bookshop down the street this morning, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and a book about chaos theory called Does God Play Dice by Ian Stewart. What? That’s a totally normal pairing. For me.
**With the exception of Aristotle, which I’m only keeping around because those books owe me something for the stress they put me through ten years ago when I was actually studying Aristotle. Also because someday I might need to consult them again.
****Just so we’re clear that’s not a criticism of the church in modernity or a condemnation of religion as a whole, but an example of one of the many ways in which the Church being the ruling power sank the west into the dark ages.