great libraries, library of congress
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The Library of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.

World’s Greatest Libraries: Past and Present

April 16, 2011
by Haley A. Lovett
Explore some of the most significant libraries from the ancient and modern world, including the largest, the oldest and the most technologically advanced, as well as those with unique collections, architecture or locations.

Great Libraries of the Past

Perhaps one of the best-known libraries of ancient times is the Library of Alexandria. Founded in 228 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, this library housed 700,000 scrolls. Many famous thinkers of the time studied or worked in the library, including the astronomers Aristarchus and Eratosthenes, the poet Callimachus, the mathematician Euclid, the scientist Herophilus, and the historian Manetho. The library survived for six centuries, but slowly disappeared after a fire and numerous invasions and wars. The library was gone by 400 AD. However, after years of scholars pushing for the revival of the great library, on October 16, 2002, Egypt celebrated the opening of the New Library of Alexandria, designed to rival the original.

About a hundred years after the great Library of Alexandra was formed, another great library was established. After the ruler of Egypt banned the export of papyrus (the plant used to make paper) it is thought that parchment was developed in the city of Pergamum—in modern-day Turkey—which made possible the copying of books outside of Egypt, and the development of the Library at Pergamum. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, eventually the library, along with the entire city, was turned over to Rome, and some think that its collection was given to Cleopatra to become part of the Library of Alexandria.

Predating the libraries at Pergamum and Alexandria was the Library of King Ashurbanipal at the city of Nineveh. In the 600s BC, Ashurbanipal established a great library housing tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets. The library had many of the same characteristics of a modern library, for example texts were organized by subject matter, government documents were also held in the library, and there were citations explaining what sets of tablets and rooms contained. Eventually the library was buried during an invasion, and although Ashurbanipal’s library was not the first library, it was one of the largest of its time, and one of the first libraries to implement cataloging as we use in the present day.

In the 7th century in China, another great library was founded. A Buddhist monk, Jingwan, began to carve Buddhist scripture into stone tablets and store them in caves at the Yunju Temple in order to preserve them in case of future persecution of Buddhism and attempts to destroy scripture. For more than 1000 years the work of carving the scriptures into stone and storing them in the library caves at Yunju temple continued. Today, more than 14,000 stone tablets have been found at the site, and it is thought that there may be more in hidden storage caves.

The Greatest Modern Day Libraries

Although there are many wonderful libraries throughout the world, our list of the best modern day libraries consists mostly of English-language libraries; for lists of some of the great libraries in all countries around the world, visit some of the additional links provided at the bottom of this section. 

The British Library’s building at St. Pancras is the largest public building built in the United Kingdom in the 20th century, and can seat more than 1200 readers. The library contains a copy of every publication produced in the U.K. and Ireland, as well as millions more from around the world.

The Library of Congress, founded in 1800, is now the largest library in the world. It is home to the U.S. copyright office, with the majority of its 22,000 items received each day coming via Copyright registration. Only about half of the LOC’s collection is in English, the other half are in languages from around the world. It also houses a law library, and a rare books and manuscripts collection.

The Queens Library is, by the size of its collection, larger than the New York Public Library, and second only to the Boston Public Library in terms of size. The library offers tens of thousands of free programs to its patrons each year, and in 2000 it received the first-ever National Award for Library Service by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Cuyahoga County Library continually makes “best of” library lists around the country. This library’s cutting edge technology, and vast collection of online and offline resources make it a great asset, both to the Ohio community it serves through its brick and mortar location, and the online community it serves through its Web site.

Choosing which of the overwhelming number of modern libraries are the best is a difficult task, as there are many different criteria on which to judge them. Below are a few more places to find lists of the best modern-day libraries.

If all that matters is the size of a library’s collection, the American Library Association’s list of the nation’s largest libraries will be of great interest. With the Library of Congress topping off the list, you may be surprised how many University Libraries are also featured.

The Princeton Review lists its choices for the best college libraries. Not surprisingly many Ivy League schools make the cut of the top 20, but a few surprises show up on the list as well.

Hennen’s American Public Library Rankings (HAPLR) is published each year and lists what it considers to be the best public libraries (based on data provided by the government) by population of the library’s area of service.

In response to what it considered to be inaccurate ratings by HAPLR, Library Journal made its own lists of the best public libraries around the country by circulation, visits, program attendance, and based on LJ’s own ranking system.

If modern amenities are what you are after, the list created by Best Colleges Online points out libraries with fascinating architecture, with amazing technology and innovation, and with the best digital collections.

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