Written by: Jenny Roach
Edited by: Gabrielle S. Bates and Adina Vega
We often think of special libraries as “offshoots” of traditional libraries–but what if they came first in history? In order to answer this question, we’ll need to travel back in time to Mesopotamia. There’s an overwhelming body of evidence that humans realized the need to record, store, and organize information as early as the 3rd millennium BC, developing naturally out of the greatest human invention: writing. From there, the path leads to the first libraries, and they were special in every sense of the word.
The invention of writing emerged in multiple parts of the world in a relatively short period. In fact, alphabetic writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations within a relatively short period. In other words, humans invented writing four times in four separate places at once: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica.
Evolution of Mesopotamian script. Sumerian is the oldest known written language.
Administrative writing developed organically out of the need to count things. Civilizations began to grow and prosper, producing not only more data but complex data from daily life. Art historian and archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat of the University of Texas in Austin had this to say about the role of counting in the timeline of special librarianship:
Thus, “writing resulted not only from new bureaucratic demands but from the invention of abstract counting,” Schmandt-Besserat argued in her journal article “How Writing Came About.” The most important evidence uncovered is that counting was not, as formerly assumed, subservient to writing; on the contrary, writing emerged from counting.”
Representative symbols used for counting gradually morphed into alphabetical writing. Quantitative information shifted into something far more descriptive out of the necessity to record events, memories, campaigns of kings, rituals, and other concepts that capture the earliest snapshots of human civilization. The need to communicate over long distances was another contributing factor to the shift. In essence, writing is when the concept of “history” began, and information storage sprouted as a result of its invention. The nature, location, and purpose of the documents made the libraries special.
Tablets found in the Library of Ashurbanipal housed in the British Museum.
Ashurbanipal, known as the last great king of Assyria from 669–631 BC, is known as the mastermind behind one of the earliest specialized libraries, built for his personal use. It was not open to the public, but the size was nothing to scoff at. In his library, archaeologists found approximately 30,000 clay documents for various administrative and religious matters, foreign relations, and concerns about finances, alongside smaller collections of medicine, literature, and astronomy.
Surprisingly, the bulk of the artifacts found were not literary in nature. The most extensive collection was devoted to divination and religious texts, many containing spells and rituals to help the king maintain power. In essence, King Ashurbanipal created a special library that acted as a rolodex of rituals and magic spells that allowed him to communicate with the gods and plea for divine favor. As for earthly matters, most documents were administrative in nature, not unlike modern day libraries within specialized government buildings.
At the time, scribes developed a surprisingly sophisticated form of cataloging that was also discovered in the library, even the practice of decorating the spines of books with publisher information by pressing shapes onto the “spine” of the clay documents (called colophons). The Babylonian texts seized by Ashurbanipal were also categorized and cataloged by using physical space, varying writing mediums (not just clay, but wood and wax), various shapes of tablets, color coding, summaries, and even a primitive form of tables of contents. Ancient scribes were not only copyists and teachers, but also the special librarians of antiquity.
The concept of a library continued to gradually evolve from there over hundreds of years, becoming increasingly public over time. Everyone is familiar with Ptolemy I Soter’s Library of Alexandria (finished by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus), which acted as a specialized library for scholars to make copies of texts. It wasn’t until the fall of Rome (around the time of Emperor Augustus, 27 BCE – 14 CE) that the first genuinely public libraries were invented with the premise that books belonged to everyone–not just scholars, royalty, and scribes.
Ruins of the Roman Library of Ephesus Celsus, built in the 110s CE.
As special librarians, we’re often seen as being tucked away into some corner of a much larger institution with a purpose that comes second to the organization’s purpose. Some of our duties may seem tedious and mundane. Still, every time we assign a catalog number, shelf a book, or report to our stakeholders, we continue a tradition spanning several millennia that once served divinely appointed kings and queens. One could even argue that special librarians were the midwives of recorded history.
Murray, Stuart A.P. (2009) The Library: An Illustrated History. Chicago, IL: Skyhorse Publishing (p. 9)
Visible Language: The Earliest Writing Systems – Introduction, Christopher Woods, Associate Professor of Sumerology, Oriental Institute