Do We Still Need Libraries?
In the internet age what's the point of libraries? Do we even still need these brick and mortar buildings when a lot of knowledge can be found online? Today, Danielle examines the history of libraries around the world and what role they still play in society.
With almost unlimited access to a wide array of knowledge online, do we still need libraries?
And do phones, computers, tablets and other devices make brick and mortar libraries obsolete?
While some think that libraries are expensive and rarely used, others argue that they’re
still essential social spaces that provide vital resources for communities.
Today, I’ll be discussing how libraries got started and if they still play a useful
role in society.
The modern library emerged in the 19th century, but libraries have ancient origins.
It’s difficult to determine what the first library was.
According to Yale’s Cuneiform Commentaries Project, Mesopotamia had three types of libraries,
temple, palace and private.
One of the first libraries in the world was built in the 7th century BCE.
The Library of Ashurbanipal was located in Nineveh (modern day Iraq) and was built for
the personal use of its namesake.
Ashurbanipal built his massive collection largely through the places that he conquered.
But the first great library that was open to the broader public (and not just royalty
or religious figures) was the Library of Alexandria.
The collection and the building that housed it were both built after the death of Alexander
the Great in 323 B.C.E.
The structure was conceived by Alexander’s former general Ptolemy I Soter and his son.
During its heyday it housed approximately half a million scrolls.
Scholars from around the Mediterranean would come to study the collections on history and
mathematics, among other subjects.
So it seems that history nerds are a proud and particularly ancient people that stretch
back thousands of years.
Sadly, the library has been destroyed.
The most popularly named culprit is Julius Caesar, who set fire to the harbor when he
was battling Ptolemy XIII.
So it seems like this story is a tale of two Ptolemys.
Anyway, the Greco-Roman world was no slouch in the scroll storage game, housing dozens
of libraries in Rome alone during the Imperial Era.
If you’re starting to see a connection between conquest and bookish behavior, then you’d
be absolutely right.
But it appears that both building libraries and filling them with materials were kind
of a pugilistic game for centuries.
The Byzantine Empire also got in on the library scheme with the Imperial Library of Constantinople
in the 4th century CE, and an early library named “The House of Wisdom” was built
in Baghdad in the 9th century....and destroyed when the city was taken by Mongol forces in
And in some cases the collections were filled with things stolen from other conquered places.
But libraries were also ways to let your military rivals know that you cared about empire and
They were big, fancy, eye catching monuments that stood as testaments to the culture of
They were often located in city centers that drew visitors from the surrounding regions,
making them important arteries in early cityscapes.
Moving forward from the ancient period and through the early middle ages, libraries started
to take a different turn.
Early collections like the Quranic manuscripts at Chinguetti were more centered around storing
and spreading religious dogma.
But religious libraries weren’t the only type.
The world’s oldest library still in existence, the library at al-Qarawiyyin University in
Morocco, which opened in 859 CE, isn’t a religious collection but a scholarly one.
Then there was a middle ground, like the Vatican Library, founded in Vatican City in 1475 CE.
It kept religious texts but also state records and texts on the study of math, law, and history.
But whether they were forged in fire or faith, privately owned or open to the public, libraries
before the 18th and 19th century didn’t operate the way today’s do.
In his article on the history of modern libraries, Associate Professor Thomas Augst notes that
medieval archives often chained books to the desks to prevent theft . In fact, most libraries
before the emergence of the modern library didn’t allow books to circulate or be taken
home by patrons.
Augst notes that this changed (at least in the American colonies) when Benjamin Franklin
and a group of citizens decided to form the Library Company of Philadelphia.
In the early 18th century they began operating the library like, “...joint stock companies
whose members agreed to pool resources for their mutual benefit.”
They worked together to purchase books, which subscribed members could check out, bring
home, read, and return.
This was the first successful public lending library in the colonies.
Augst also notes that part of the significance of the Library Company of Philadelphia is
that they ordered and stocked books based on the expressed interests of their subscribers,
rather than curating the collection based on a particular ideology.
This newfangled library for men and women who could read and could afford to subscribe
owed a huge debt to the emergence of mass printing.
Because those medieval archivists weren’t just grumps who liked to chain stuff to desks.
The costs of producing a book and maintaining it were prohibitively high.
And since many of the volumes were challenging or impossible to replace, early libraries
also served as guardians of important books.
But as mass printing started to pick up steam in the 18th century and especially 19th century,
it suddenly became possible to have multiple copies of the same book and to lend those
As Augst also notes, libraries have evolved in their social functions to accommodate the
forms and shapes that information storage has taken at different points in time.
So, texts cost more than your house?
Chain ‘em to the desk.
Mass printed books a little less challenging to replace and a new fangled invention called
the novel taking the world by storm during the 18th century?
Well, lend them out so folks can enjoy.
But the subscription libraries early lending practices had flaws: they still had barriers
to access on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity and race.
And you had to be able to afford the subscription.
Still, with the emerging popularity of the novel in the 18th century and the reduced
cost of mass print in the 19th century, the public library in the 19th century through
the 20th century played an increased role in public life.
UK Parliament passed the Museums Act of 1845 and the Public Libraries Act of 1850, which
gave towns the ability to build their own museums.
And under these laws several public libraries were established.
So the 19th century saw not only an explosion of new libraries, but also a shift in the
way that people thought about them.
Now that lending libraries were on the rise, people were interested and invested in seeing
them made into permanent parts of their cultural fabric.
A particular type of library continued to pop up in places like Boston and New York
in the latter half of the century: stateside public libraries (ones that weren’t bound
by subscription services and/or were funded by taxes).
Plus libraries got a boost from the private donations of wealthy robber baron philanthropists
like Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie used his massive fortune to fund the creation of 1,689 libraries across the
US, as well as hundreds more around the world in places like Mauritius, Serbia, Australia,
Malaysia and South Africa, bringing the actual total number of Carnegie libraries over 2,500.
Between 1883 and 1929, Carnegie’s massive project became a symbol of truly public libraries.
But author Paul Dickson (who wrote a book on American libraries) notes in an article
for NPR that Carnegie’s libraries also changed the cityscapes of places like Washington DC
where a Carnegie library opened in 1903.
He claims that this library, which went up, “before the monumental limestone and marble”
of the Washington Mall “was one of the first really beautiful public buildings.”
But libraries have also been a site of contentious debate and social struggle.
And to tell us all about that I’m going to kick it my friend Evelyn from the Internets
over at PBS Say it Loud!
So as we rolled into the 19th century and more lending libraries sprung up around the
world, the library as a social space became coded as a democratizing place of access,
storage, and circulation.
And the rhetoric surrounding libraries in the US continued to center on the idealization
of libraries as open forums that everyone could enjoy and use to better understand the
world around them.
But the history of the library isn’t only a celebratory one, since as Augst notes:
"Limitations of gender, class, ethnicity, and race belied the rhetoric of republican
equality, and social libraries helped to institutionalize a more democratic print culture that valued
books not as a form of elite property but rather a medium of mass circulation.
Instead of enforcing status in educational and social hierarchies dominated by the learned
ministry and gentlemen, books acquired social life through exchange and use..."
In her article on the Carnegie funded library in DC, NPR’s Susan Stamberg noted that in
the early 20th century black people remembered that it was the only building downtown where
they were allowed to use the bathroom.
But libraries often fell short of their promise to distribute their wares to the masses without
That’s why in the first half of the 20th century, throughout the struggles of segregation,
Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, black communities and black librarians have fought
tirelessly to ensure the actual democratic dissemination of knowledge.
Like William Carl Bolivar, a black Philadelphian, bibliophile and journalist who published a
column in the Philadelphia Tribune and served as an organizer of and contributor to the
American Negro Historical Society because he wanted to change the way black history
was being preserved and spread.
Or Regina Anderson Andrews, who became the first African American supervising librarian
in the history of the NY Public Library, working there from 1923-1967.
Or Eliza Atkins Gleason, who became the first African American to earn a PhD in library
science in 1940.
And Professor Michael Fultz traces the history of black libraries in the South during the
first half of the 20th century in his article.
Fultz notes that after the Civil War, black communities prioritized the building of public
schools before the building of libraries.
But by the early 20th century black run libraries began to spread nationwide and continued to
develop alongside the fight for desegregation.
And now that you know, you can wrap things up!
So I’ve traced the history of libraries, but that leaves us with our final burning
question: Do we still need them in the internet age?
Well in the 20th century and into the dawn of the 21st, the relationship between violent
conflict and libraries was sadly reinvigorated.
And in places where battles raged and human life was lost, the destruction of the library
often got folded into the fallout.
Take for example the library destroyed during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992, the destruction
of libraries in Baghdad in 2003, and the obliteration of Chinese libraries by Japanese forces during
But despite the arresting symbol of cultural loss that burning a library represents, some
brick and mortar libraries are suffering a decline in budgets or usage, in the wake of
easy access to online alternatives.
But the numbers can often feel contradictory.
One 2015 editorial review from the NYTimes asserted that 37 million people a year visit
New York’s libraries, a number that is greater than the total number of visitors at, “...the
city’s baseball stadiums, its basketball and hockey arenas, all its performing-arts
spaces, city-owned museums, gardens and zoos.”
But a 2016 Pew report also found that in 2015 only 44% of Americans visited a public library
in the past year, a number that was down from 53% in 2012.
But even though the debates over numbers can leave us more confused than ever before, here’s
one final number one on the pile: the same Pew survey found that 76% of Americans surveyed
felt like libraries served their communities’ educational needs well or pretty well.
Those in favor of libraries note that they can be one of the few places within a community
that offer all of their services largely free of charge.
Just like the library funded by Carnegie in DC would let everyone use the restroom, some
library visitors today are from vulnerable populations that need clean, safe, and accessible
Like kids who use libraries to gain access to the internet to complete their homework,
or take advantage of library programs to fill the gap between the end of the school day
and when their parents come home from work.
Or senior citizens who use libraries as social hubs for various activities.
Or out of work adults who use the library for continuing education and for seeking new
Librarians often fill the gap left by other social services for children and adults alike
by helping folks to navigate the resources in their communities, scheduling ongoing programing,
and helping us all be lifelong learners.
I’ve even seen millennials and Gen Z folks online arguing that libraries should stay
open late, like coffee shops and bars, because they would offer a social alternative to spending
money and drinking if you wanted to hang out with your friends.
Which I’m not against and if anyone here wants to organize a late night library social
where we all read in solidarity, then hit me up.
So while the debate over the costs of their edifices rages on, libraries continue to occupy
a very fraught liminal space between relic and living archive.
They house all of our social, cultural and political history, ideas, and contentions
in one place.
So even though our eyes and search engines may make it seem like everything has shifted
online, our bodies are still out here knocking around in real time, craving social interaction
And if most of us love them when they’re around and mourn them deeply when they’re
lost, it seems like at least for now the library as an IRL institution is here to stay (even
when budgets get pinched and squeezed).
So what do you think?
If you guys want to learn more about big bookish history be sure to watch the other episodes
in our YT learning fund series on class in US Culture, including the History of Student
And if y’all want more great and hilarious content on black history and culture be sure
to check out Evelyn and Azie on Say it Loud!