Libraries Making History

Did you know that the oldest continually operating library in the world is in Morocco?

There are many interesting moments to explore in library history.

Libraries are historical staples of public education, knowledge, and community. This goes back centuries, with the Library of Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BCE and iconic facilities like the New York Public Library. Even so, library history is vast, diverse, and groundbreaking. Here are fascinating moments in library history spanning several centuries and countries.

The Floating Freedom School

Before the US Civil War, teaching Black people how to read was against the law in states that allowed slavery. Granted, this didn’t stop abolitionists like John Berry Meachum. Meachum and John Mason Peck, a White Baptist missionary, established the First African Baptist Church in St. Louis, one of the oldest Black churches west of the Mississippi River. It was here he provided free classes to liberated Black people, along with some born into slavery.

However, as racial tensions heightened and education was banned entirely for Black people, Meachum found a loophole. Instead of holding his classes inside the walls of his church, he taught students on a steamboat anchored just outside Missouri’s jurisdiction, also known as the Floating Freedom School.

1800: The Library of Congress is Established

The famous Library of Congress is one of the world’s largest and oldest federal cultural institutions in the United States. The Library of Congress has a vast history starting from its establishment, including the destruction of the original library’s three thousand core volumes after British troops burned the first US capital.

On January 30, 1815, the library completed its purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of 6,487 books for $23,950. Today, this massive facility occupies three buildings in Washington, D.C.: the Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison Memorial buildings.


Sign the petition to show that Americans love their libraries!

Project Gutenberg: The First Digital Library

Still successfully running today, Project Gutenberg was the first and oldest digital library, with its roots beginning on July 4, 1971. Project Gutenberg started when Michael Hart, a student at the University of Illinois, began typing the Declaration of Independence into the university’s computer system.

He soon followed with the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible, all free of charge. Project Gutenberg became a nonprofit in 2000 with the same goal of distributing public domain works for free on the internet, and users can still interact with the library today.

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria

The burning of the Library of Alexandria has been a mystery that has baffled historians for decades, along with what kinds of precious materials were destroyed. The Library of Alexandria was founded in Egypt by Alexander the Great. However, his successor, Ptolemy I Soter, founded its sister museum in 283 BCE.

At its peak, the facility was said to have held half a million documents. It was also likely to have lecture areas, a zoo, gardens, and shrines. Nevertheless, in 48 BCE, the monumental library mysteriously burned down along with its contents, and no one knows who or what was responsible to this day.


Take action today to support libraries!

The Female Literary Association

On September 20, 1831, Sarah Maps Douglass and several other Black women organized the Female Literary Association. This group was created by and for Black women, particularly during a time when slavery was allowed in the US and racial tensions were high.

The Female Literary Association was monumental for educating Black women while providing community and comfort during tumultuous times. Their unique peer reviewing and discussion method made the FLA incredibly ahead of its time and fundamental for the distribution of writing created by Black women in the 1800s.

Origins of the Rainbow Round Table

Known today as the Rainbow Round Table, the Task Force on Gay Liberation met for the first time on July 1, 1970, at the ALA Annual Conference. Coordinated initially by Israel Fishman, the group’s goals included creating bibliographies, revisions, book lists, and resources for the LGTBQIA+ community within libraries. This made it the first LGTBQIA+ professional organization in the United States.

Although the Rainbow Round Table changed its name, its objective remains the same: to ensure a safe and inclusive space for members of the LGTBQIA+ communities in all US public libraries.


Sign the pledge to vote for libraries!

FEMA Formally Recognizes Libraries

Considering how much public libraries do for their local communities, it’s surprising that FEMA didn’t formally recognize libraries until 2011. FEMA stands for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which manages and organizes national disaster relief.

On January 7, 2011, FEMA adjusted a policy to allow libraries to be nationally recognized as emergency shelters and community support centers. This proved vital during the COVID-19 pandemic when libraries became a refuge to people all over the United States.

The Women of Al-Qarawiyyin

Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, is the oldest continually operating library in the world. It is also an ancient library that women historically maintained. Al-Qarawiyyin was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant.

Centuries later, a Fez architect named Aziza Chaouni was allowed to continue the tradition by returning the ancient library to its former glory in 2012. The library was established in 859 CE, so Al-Qarawiyyyin desperately needed a remodel. Thankfully, with the help of Chaouni, the oldest library in the world remains standing and successfully open to the public.

Library history is intriguing and extensive. Interested in learning more? Your local library will have plenty of research materials to satisfy your inner history buff.



Visit to learn more about our work on behalf of libraries.

#librarymarketers: Enjoy this story? Want to use it for your library newsletter, blog, or social media? This article is published under Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International and is free to edit and use with attribution. Please cite EveryLibrary on

This work by EveryLibrary is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0