by Janet Spencer

The word library comes from the Latin “liber” meaning the inner bark of trees, one of the first writing materials. Come along with Tidbits as we check out some books!


The oldest known library was the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, named after the last great king of the Assyrian Empire, and located near what is now Mosul, Iraq. Established around 650 B.C., it included more than 30,000 clay tablets with cuneiform writing. The library was uncovered during an archaeological excavation of the royal palace in 1849. It contained records of transactions, historical accounts of wars, and religious documents, which were stamped as belonging to the king. It also included the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest piece of literature ever discovered. It was originally written around 2100 B.C., though other clay copies were created as recently at 700 B.C.

• The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt is the oldest continuously operating library in the world. It houses the world’s second largest collection of ancient manuscripts, with only Vatican City having a larger collection. It was established in the year 565 A.D. Its collection includes the oldest known complete Bible, dating to around 345 A.D.

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The Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. Beginning around 300 B.C., various rulers were aggressive about collecting all books they could, which were written on papyrus scrolls at the time. They even searched all incoming ships for any written material, which was confiscated, copied, and then returned – with the original remaining in the library. At its height, the Great Library of Alexandria had as many as 400,000 scrolls.

• Many people erroneously believe that the library was destroyed by a single catastrophic fire. There were several accidental small fires through the centuries, including the time when Caesar set the wharves on fire in 48 B.C. to prevent the fleet belonging to Cleopatra’s brother from docking. The fire spread and some of the library was lost. But the true demise of the library was due to lack of funding, ending the library around 250 A.D.

• One of the oldest public libraries in the U.S. opened in 1790 in Franklin, Massachusetts, where residents circulated books donated by Benjamin Franklin following his death. Franklin had earlier started his own lending library in Philadelphia in 1731, requiring an annual subscription fee of 40 shillings.

• The Town Library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which opened in 1833, was the first free public library funded by a municipality with the purpose of making materials available to the community.

• British philanthropist George Moore funded the first-ever bookmobile in Great Britain in 1857. The horse-drawn wagon served books from bookshelves mounted on the outside and traveled between eight villages in northern England in order to “diffuse good literature among the rural population” as per Moore’s bequest.

Andrew Carnegie became one of the wealthiest humans in history by developing the steel industry into a massive monopoly that exploited workers. Yet, before he died in 1919, he gave away about 90% of his fortune, equal to about $5.5 billion in today’s dollars. He founded charities, contributed to universities, and built over 2,500 libraries throughout the English-speaking world: the U.S., Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. In the U.S., Carnegie built 1,679 libraries that were totally free for the public to use.

• Many early libraries were built with apartments attached, so the library’s custodians would have living quarters in order to be able to keep shoveling coal into furnaces at all hours of the day and night.

A collection of verses called “Days and Deeds” was checked out of Kewanee, Illinois Public Library in April of 1955 by Emily Canellos-Simms. It was due on April 19, 1955. Some 47 years later, Emily found the book in her mother’s house and gave it back, with an overdue fine of over $345 having accrued at the rate of 2 cents per day.

• In 2016, the granddaughter of a man who had checked out “The Microscope and Its Revelations” from Hereford Cathedral School in Britain returned the title 120 years late.

• In 2011, the Camden School of Arts lending library in Australia had a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “Insectivorous Plants” returned to them. The book had been checked out in 1889 and had lain among the book collection of a retired veterinarian before the library stamp was noticed, and the book returned, some 122 years overdue.

• At Marsh’s Library in Dublin, Ireland, visitors reading rare books were locked in cages until they were done, to prevent theft.

The McAllen Public Library in Texas is housed in a converted Walmart. It opened in December 2011, and is the largest single-floor library in the United States, occupying 125,000 square feet (11,600 m2), or two and a half times the area of a standard football playing field. It includes an art gallery, 16 public meeting spaces, 14 public study rooms, three computer labs, a used book store, a café, and a 180-seat auditorium.

• Vermont is home to a library that straddles the U.S. border to Canada. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sits directly on the border. You can walk in from Stanstead, Quebec, and walk out into Derby Line, Vermont. You don’t need a passport to cross the (literal) line running through the building, but you do have to return to your country of origin or risk fines.

• The Osmothèque is a library of odors in Versailles, France. Founded in 1990, it serves as a repository for perfumes, containing over 3,200 scents. The intention of the collection is to safeguard formulas, archive the history of individual scents, and track samples donated by the manufacturers.

• Manhattan is home to the Conjuring Arts Research Center, established in 2003. It serves as a free public repository of books on magic, hypnosis, ventriloquism, juggling, and sleight of hand. It currently holds over 12,000 books, including more than 500 rare books published before 1700.

• Some German cities have “art libraries” where members pay a small fee to borrow paintings and sculptures from local artists to put into their homes for several months.

• Some libraries allow you to check out seeds with the intention that gardeners will replace the seeds when their crop is harvested.

• The Oakland Library in California maintains a “tool lending library” of 3,500 tools.