Libraries: Championing Human Heritage and Memory Since Ancient Times

Libraries: Championing Human Heritage and Memory Since Ancient Times

Ruins of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus under a dusk sky. One of the biggest libraries of the ancient world, it was built to hold up to 12,000 scrolls. Image: (cc) Austrian Archaeological Institute

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As the world struggles to make sense out of the difficult and tragic events of our time, one institution — with roots as ancient as civilization itself— has fought to preserve and connect us to our collective human memory: The Library.

Libraries have been at the forefront of collecting the record of human life and thought, not only for our wonder and enjoyment, but also for when it is time to reflect on where we are and where we would like to go as a society.

An Ancient and Evolving Quest

The beginning of History itself (and the end of Prehistory) is marked by the appearance of the first libraries. Nearly 5,000 years ago, in the ancient Fertile Crescent cities of Mesopotamia, libraries were just small archives in temple room corners. Their cool, dry, interiors stored clay tablets etched in cuneiform script. These most often told of everyday business transactions or recorded the inventories of stores and warehouses.

Then, between 2600 and 500 BCE, ancient libraries evolved further and sprung up around the civilized world to amass the written thought, stories, and legends of the communities that surrounded them: From the epic of Gilgamesh — the first superhero — to treatises on astronomical phenomena, like eclipses. Some libraries even became temple-like structures themselves, inspiring pilgrims to trek from afar to visit them.

Moreover, important pieces of the puzzle of human history have survived and been rediscovered — sometimes after a little digging — because some library dedicated itself to preserving them. Of course, many of these puzzle pieces started out as local memory, knowledge, or lore. It was by sharing these among various libraries that our history and culture became even better preserved. One can say libraries were the original hubs of a world-wide web of information.

A Science and an Art

Today, our libraries and librarians keep their institutional mission alive as they continue the work of gathering and sharing the memory and cultural heritage of local communities. The systems they use today trace their lineage to the Great Library of Alexandria — the largest and most significant library in the ancient world — which, beginning in the 3rd century BCE, cataloged more than half-a-million papyrus scrolls, and organized them in a scholarly order. As part of their professional training, modern librarians still learn the science and art of preservation, cataloging, and providing access to historical materials. Libraries may even sponsor events in communities to collect historical accounts from the local people themselves, such as what the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research does in Southern California and Los Angeles, as do many other libraries throughout the country and the world.

A Place of (Self-) Discovery

Modern libraries are just as interested in sharing our world’s ideas, music, films, and other forms of memory, as they are in collecting them. On nearly any day of the month, a library near you holds an event where you can learn about your community’s past and present, follow your interests, or just have some fun. They exhibit film and photograph collections, present concerts, invite artists, poets, authors, storytellers, historians — all to help us learn something about ourselves and where we come from, and to help make our world a little less confusing.

A Legacy of Humanity

Libraries have come a long way since their humble beginnings as the modest archives of business records available to only a select few; yet throughout history, no other institution has been as diligent or resilient in helping humanity connect its past, present, and future as libraries. Their continuing legacy is clearly recognized in today’s institutions of scholarship, places like universities and archives, in the internet, and in how we organize knowledge in society. Simply put, without libraries, the Western world would never have experienced the Renaissance or developed its modern culture. Especially in our digital age, libraries move boldly forward with their ancient quest to preserve and share our heritage through innovative projects to digitize and provide access to their collections to the entire world online.

A Message to The Present and The Future

Should we ever begin to forget our past, the libraries in our midst are free and open sources for our intellectual and cultural edification. In them, we can find a record of our true histories in the thoughts and memories of those who have come before us. Libraries are not mere storage facilities for books, they are living, dynamic, evolving, and meaningful entities at the center of a human society that engages and empowers our best selves.