Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

Libraries—Gateways to Knowledge

Libraries—Gateways to Knowledge

Libraries​—Gateways to Knowledge


LIBRARIES have been termed “one of the pillars of civilization.” The World Book Encyclopedia says that they are among the most important contributors to human culture and technology. The German poet Goethe called them the memory of mankind.

Which libraries have been among the most important “pillars of civilization”? Which book has had the greatest influence both on libraries and on the spread of literacy? And how many books do the largest of modern libraries hold? To answer the first question, let us step back in time and visit one of mankind’s earliest libraries.

An Ancient “Encyclopedia of Human Knowledge”

Picture yourself in the Middle Eastern country known today as Iraq. The year is 650 B.C.E. You are within the towering walls of the city of Nineveh (near modern-day Mosul). Looming before you is the imperial palace of King Ashurbanipal​—ruler of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia. * While standing near the palace doors, you notice men carting heavy earthen jars into the building. These men have just returned from the extremities of the Assyrian kingdom and are attempting to gather every known work about the social, cultural, and religious traditions of the people living in Ashurbanipal’s realm. Opening one of the jars, you notice that they are full of pillow-shaped clay tablets about three inches [8 cm] wide by four inches [10 cm] long.

You follow one of the men inside the palace, where you see scribes with bone styli making wedge-shaped impressions on small tablets of moist clay. They are translating foreign-language documents into Assyrian. Later, the tablets will be baked in an oven, making the records almost indestructible. The records are stored in rooms filled with shelves that are stacked with hundreds of jars. On the doorposts of the rooms, plaques state the subject of the records held in each location. The more than 20,000 clay tablets in this library contain information about business transactions, religious customs, law, history, medicine, and human and animal physiology, forming what a later scholar described as “an encyclopedia of human knowledge.”

Before and After the Nineveh Library

Other great libraries existed before Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh. King Hammurabi built a library in the Babylonian city of Borsippa a thousand years before Ashurbanipal. Rameses II founded a famous library in the Egyptian city of Thebes more than 700 years before Ashurbanipal. But the diversity of information and the sheer number of records earn Ashurbanipal’s library the reputation of being “the greatest of the ancient world.” It was 350 years before another library surpassed it.

That greater library was built by Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, about the year 300 B.C.E. It was constructed in the Egyptian seaport city of Alexandria, and its librarians endeavored to collect copies of most of the writings in the inhabited world. * According to tradition, it was at Alexandria that about 70 scholars started translating the Hebrew portion of the Scriptures into Greek. This translation came to be called the Greek Septuagint and was used extensively by early Christians.

Oriental Libraries

At the time that Ashurbanipal was improving his library, the Chou dynasty was ruling China. During the reign of this dynasty, from 1122 B.C.E. to 256 B.C.E., a group of books were produced that came to be known as the Five Classics. They included a handbook for interpreting the future, a collection of speeches of early rulers, poetry, instructions for religious ceremonies and rituals, and a history of the state of Lu from about 722 B.C.E. to 481 B.C.E.​—the last book being ascribed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The Five Classics and the numerous commentaries about them influenced Chinese thinking and formed the basis of both imperial and private libraries for more than two millenniums.

In Japan, Hojo Sanetoki, a member of a ruling samurai family, founded a library in 1275 at his family home in Kanazawa (now part of Yokohama). He attempted to collect every existing book in Chinese and Japanese. Although diminished in content, this collection of books still exists today.

The Bible, Monastery Libraries, and Western Culture

“The power of the printed word, and the value of the library,” says the book A History of Libraries in the Western World, “is nowhere better illustrated than in the rise, spread and durability of the Christian religion.” What is the relationship between the development of libraries and the spread of Christianity?

After the Roman Empire disintegrated and the contents of its grand libraries were destroyed or dispersed, Christendom’s monasteries emerged throughout Europe and gathered remnants of these ancient libraries. One key activity of many of these monasteries was the copying of Bible manuscripts as well as others by hand. The Benedictine monasteries, for example, lived by the “Rule of St. Benedict,” which commanded the reading and copying of books.

Libraries in Constantinople stored and produced copies of ancient manuscripts that eventually reemerged in Italy. It is believed that these manuscripts played an important role in triggering the Renaissance. Historian Elmer D. Johnson says: “The role of the monastery library in the preservation of Western culture cannot be denied. For more or less a thousand years, it was the intellectual heart of Europe, and without it western civilization would have been a far different world.”

The work of copying the Bible helped to keep “the intellectual heart of Europe” beating during this period. And as the Reformation swept through Europe, the desire to read the Bible motivated ordinary men to cast off the shackles of illiteracy. The book The Story of Libraries says: “We find in the Protestant Reformation the beginnings of the idea that every member of society must have at least enough education to read the Bible. As theological controversy increased, the ability to read a broader range of religious writings became important. This required not only the knowledge of how to read, but physical access to the books as well.”

The Bible thus played a key role in the spread both of libraries and of literacy throughout the Western world. Then with the invention of the printing press, huge private and national libraries containing books on a vast array of subjects emerged throughout Europe and, eventually, the rest of the world.

Libraries of the 21st Century

Today some libraries have grown to extraordinary size. Imagine standing next to a bookshelf that was 530 miles [850 km] long and that contained over 29 million books. That is the approximate size of the world’s largest library​—the Library of Congress, in the United States. In addition to books, the library holds some 2.7 million audio and video recordings, 12 million photographs, 4.8 million maps, and 57 million manuscripts. Each day, the library adds 7,000 items to its collection!

The British Library in London holds the second-largest number of books, more than 18 million of them. The Russian State Library in Moscow holds 17 million books and has a collection of some 632,000 annual sets of newspapers. The National Library of France, one of the oldest surviving national libraries in Europe, has 13 million books. In addition, the book Library World Records states: “The French national library was the first library to provide full-text access to a great deal of its collections via the Internet.” For anyone with access to a computer, the Internet has provided unprecedented ease of access to mankind’s storehouse of knowledge.

As never before, the quantity of information available to the public is exploding. It is estimated that the total stock of human knowledge is doubling every four and a half years. In the United States alone, over 150,000 new book titles are published each year.

Especially relevant today, then, is the observation of the ancient scholar, writer, and king​—Solomon. He wrote: “To the making of many books there is no end, and much devotion to them is wearisome to the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) When used discerningly, though, libraries continue to be what the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization calls a “local gateway to knowledge.”


^ par. 6 Ashurbanipal, thought to be the Asenappar mentioned in the Bible at Ezra 4:10, was a contemporary of Judean King Manasseh.

^ par. 10 For more information about both the ancient and the modern Alexandrian libraries, see the January 8, 2005, issue of Awake!

[Box/Picture on page 20]

The Librarian’s Role

If you cannot find the book you need in the library’s catalog, don’t despair​—ask the librarian. A librarian’s expertise is often invaluable. Roderick, who has worked as a librarian for 20 years, says: “People often feel intimidated by libraries and librarians. They frequently start by saying, ‘This may sound stupid, but . . .’ Yet, there are no stupid questions. The skill of a good librarian is to find what you mean, not necessarily what you ask for.”

[Box/Picture on page 21]

What Do the Numbers Mean? 225.7

The Dewey Decimal System

Many libraries use the Dewey decimal classification system, which appears as a series of numbers in their catalogs and on the spines of their books. Melvil Dewey, an influential American librarian, first published his system in 1876. It uses numbers from 000 to 999 to classify all materials by subject, organizing them into ten major groups:

000-099 General

100-199 Philosophy and psychology

200-299 Religion

300-399 Social sciences

400-499 Language

500-599 Natural sciences and mathematics

600-699 Technology (applied sciences)

700-799 The arts

800-899 Literature and rhetoric

900-999 Geography and history

Each major group is then divided into ten subgroups and assigned specific subjects within that group. For example, the Bible is given its own number within the 200 (Religion) classification​—220. Specific subjects about the Bible are further divided. The number 225 identifies the “New Testament” (Greek Scriptures). Additional digits identify the type of book:

01 Philosophy and theory

02 Miscellany

03 Dictionaries, encyclopedias, concordances

04 Special topics

05 Serial publications

06 Organizations and management

07 Education, research, related topics

08 Collections

09 History of

Therefore, an encyclopedia about the complete Bible would carry the number 220.3, while a commentary on the Greek Scriptures would carry the number 225.7.

The Library of Congress classification system is similar but uses a combination of letters and numbers. Most books also include an alphanumeric code identifying the author. In other lands different classification systems are used.

[Picture on page 18]

King Ashurbanipal of Assyria, whose library held cuneiform clay tablets, 650 B.C.E.

[Picture on page 18]

British Library, London, England

[Picture on page 18]

Library in a monastery, Switzerland, 1761

[Picture on page 19]

Alexandrian library, Egypt, about 300 B.C.E.

[Credit Line]

From the book Ridpath’s History of the World (Vol. II)

[Picture on page 20, 21]

U.S. Library of Congress, the world’s largest

[Credit Line]

From the book Ridpath’s History of the World (Vol. IX)

[Picture Credit Lines on page 18]

Top left and bottom photos: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY; tablet: Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum