What is The Oldest Library in The World?

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Libraries have long been considered the repositories of human knowledge and culture. They serve as the collective memory of civilizations, capturing the intellectual and creative endeavors of humanity through the ages. Understanding the historical context of libraries is not merely an academic exercise; it provides valuable insights into the evolution of information management, cultural preservation, and public education. This article aims to delve into a question that has intrigued historians, librarians, and bibliophiles alike: What is the oldest library in the world?

To answer this question, we must first establish the criteria for what constitutes the “oldest” library. Is it the age of the building, the collection, or the institution itself? We will explore these questions while taking a journey through the annals of history, examining the role of libraries in ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. We will scrutinize the contenders for the title of the world’s oldest library, discuss the methods used for the preservation of their collections, and finally, identify the oldest surviving library and its significance in the modern world.

By the end of this article, you will have a comprehensive understanding of the historical lineage of libraries, the complexities involved in determining their age, and the invaluable lessons they offer for the future of Library and Information Science.

Defining ‘Oldest’

Criteria for Determining the Age of a Library

Determining the age of a library is a complex task that involves multiple variables. One could consider the age of the physical structure, the collection it houses, or even the institution’s continuous operation. Each of these factors offers a different perspective on what we might consider “old.”

Read also: How Are Information Systems Reshaping Modern Libraries?

Differentiating Between Types of Libraries

The term “library” encompasses a range of institutions, each serving different community needs and holding various types of collections. Understanding these distinctions is crucial when discussing the age of libraries.

Understanding these categories helps us appreciate the diversity of libraries and the different criteria that might apply when determining their age.

Historical Context

The Role of Libraries in Ancient Civilizations

Libraries have been integral to the advancement of civilizations, serving as centers of learning, governance, and cultural preservation. In ancient societies, they were often attached to palaces, temples, or academic institutions, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between power, religion, and knowledge.

Brief Overview of Libraries in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome

Understanding the role and context of these ancient libraries provides valuable insights into the evolution of Library and Information Science, setting the stage for our exploration of the world’s oldest library.

The Contenders

Library of Ashurbanipal

The Library of Ashurbanipal, named after the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, was situated in Nineveh, which is now near modern-day Mosul in Iraq. Established in the 7th century BCE, this library is renowned for its extensive collection of cuneiform tablets made of clay. The library served as an imperial archive and was instrumental in preserving texts related to religion, magic, and science. It is most famous for housing the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest known pieces of literature.

Library of Alexandria

The Library of Alexandria, founded in the 3rd century BCE in Egypt, has been immortalized as one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world. Although much of its history is shrouded in mystery and its exact holdings are unknown, it is believed to have contained hundreds of thousands of scrolls from across the Mediterranean. The library was a hub of intellectual activity, attracting scholars from various disciplines.

The Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima

Located in Caesarea Maritima, a city in ancient Palestine, this theological library was established in the 3rd century CE. It was closely associated with the Christian Church and was reputed for its vast collection of Christian texts, including early manuscripts of the Bible. The library was also a center for scriptural studies and played a significant role in the development of early Christian theology.

Imperial Library of Constantinople

The Imperial Library of Constantinople, founded in the 4th century CE, was one of the most important libraries of the medieval world. It was established during the reign of Constantine the Great and was intended to preserve the literary and scholarly works of the Greek and Roman eras. Despite suffering from multiple sacks and fires, the library managed to survive for many centuries, making it one of the longest-lasting ancient libraries.

Methods of Preservation

Manuscripts, Clay Tablets, and Scrolls

The materials used for writing in ancient libraries varied according to the available resources and technologies. In Mesopotamia, clay tablets were the primary medium, while in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, papyrus and later parchment scrolls were more common. Manuscripts, often made of vellum, became prevalent in the Christian era. Each material had its own method of preservation, often dictated by its physical properties and the climate of the region.

Architectural Considerations

The design of ancient libraries also played a role in the preservation of their collections. For example, the Library of Ashurbanipal was built with thick walls to maintain a stable interior climate, essential for preserving clay tablets. In contrast, the Library of Alexandria was part of a larger complex that included lecture halls and gardens, suggesting a focus on accessibility and intellectual exchange over long-term preservation.

Preservation Techniques Across Different Civilizations

Different civilizations employed various techniques to preserve their collections. In Mesopotamia, clay tablets were baked to harden them, making them more durable. In Egypt, the dry climate naturally aided the preservation of papyrus scrolls. In medieval libraries like the Imperial Library of Constantinople, texts were often copied by scribes to prevent the loss of knowledge due to the decay of older materials.

Understanding these methods of preservation not only sheds light on the ingenuity of ancient civilizations but also provides valuable lessons for modern-day Library and Information Science, particularly in the areas of archival science and conservation.

The Oldest Surviving Library

The Al-Qarawiyyin Library, located in Fez, Morocco, is widely considered the oldest continuously operating library in the world. Founded in 859 CE as part of the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, the library has been a center of learning and scholarship for over a millennium. It was established by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman of great vision who also founded the university.

Its History and Significance

The Al-Qarawiyyin Library has a rich history that intertwines with the development of Islamic scholarship and the broader intellectual currents of the Mediterranean and North Africa. Its collection includes priceless manuscripts on Islamic law, sciences, and rare historical texts. The library’s significance is not merely historical; it has been a living institution that has continually adapted to the needs of its patrons.

Current Status and Holdings

Today, the Al-Qarawiyyin Library has been modernized with climate-controlled rooms for the preservation of its ancient manuscripts, as well as digitization facilities. While it remains a symbol of Islamic scholarship, it also represents the harmonious coexistence of the old and the new, a testament to the enduring value of libraries as institutions of learning and preservation.

The Role of Libraries Today

The oldest libraries offer invaluable lessons for modern Library and Information Science. They serve as case studies in effective information management, preservation techniques, and community engagement. For example, the multi-disciplinary focus of the Library of Alexandria has inspired the diverse collections found in modern academic libraries.

The Importance of Preservation and Digitization

In an age where information is increasingly digital, the importance of preserving physical texts is more crucial than ever. The methods employed by ancient libraries in preserving clay tablets, scrolls, and manuscripts provide foundational knowledge for modern archival science. Additionally, digitization efforts, like those at the Al-Qarawiyyin Library, ensure that ancient texts are accessible to a global audience, thereby democratizing knowledge.


This article has journeyed through the annals of history to explore the contenders for the world’s oldest library, delved into the methods of preservation employed by these ancient institutions, and finally identified the Al-Qarawiyyin Library as the oldest surviving library. We’ve also discussed how these ancient libraries inform modern practices in Library and Information Science, particularly in the realms of preservation and digitization.

The Enduring Legacy of the World’s Oldest Libraries

The world’s oldest libraries are not just relics of the past; they are living institutions that continue to inform and inspire. Their enduring legacy is a testament to the timeless value of libraries as repositories of human knowledge and culture.

Call to Action for Continued Research and Preservation

As stewards of knowledge, it is our collective responsibility to continue researching these ancient institutions and to apply the lessons they offer in modern contexts. Preservation is not merely an act of looking back but a way to enrich our future. Let us commit to safeguarding this invaluable heritage for generations to come.

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