Libraries and People Empowerment

Manila Bulletin, May 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Libraries and People Empowerment


LIBRARY, as an Institution, is a collection of books and other informational materials made available to the people for reading, study, or reference.

It is derived from the Latin liber, "a book," whereas a Latinized Greek word, bibliotheca, is the origin of the word for library in German, Russian, and the Romance's languages.

Libraries are nearly as old as the written word. The earliest body of written materials were assembled in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq and Syria) more than 5,000 years ago. The Summerians, an ancient Mesopotamian civilization, collected written records of legal contracts, tax assessments and bills of sales. They recorded these documents in cuneiform, a system of writing in which scribes cut edges of varying size, shape, and depth into damp clay tablets. For permanent storage, the Summerians then baked the tablets and placed them in central locations. Archeological evidence shows that scores of cuneiform libraries existed more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamian urban centers.

In the 7th century BC the Assyrian King Ashurbanipul assembled and organized a collection of records, of which some 20,000 tablets and fragments survived. His palace library was built in the City of Nineve on the Tigris River in presentday Iraq.

Some scholars believe that the first library with a major collection was built by Egyptian King Ramses II in 1200 BC. Libraries in Egypt were housed in temples and contained sacred literature. The famous library of Alexandria in Egypt contained probably the largest collection in the ancient world - more than 400,000 items. King Ptolemy I founded the library before his death in 183 BC, but his son, Ptolemy II, was most responsible in expanding the library collection. Texts were written in papyrus scrolls made out of an easily harvested and available reed from the Nile River.

According to legend, Alexandrian ruler Ptolemy II banned the export of papyrus from Egypt because he was jealous of the competing library in Pergamum. This proved to be a blessing in disguise. The ban forced the scribes at the Pergamum library to use an alternative writing material. They wrote on parchment, made from animal skins which turned to be more durable than papyrus. Because of its increased durability by 400 AD parchment had replaced papyrus throughout Europe as the principal writing material.

In conjunction with the Greek schools of philosophy (4th century BC), important libraries of the ancient world were those of Aristotle, the great library of Alexandria with its thousands of papyrus and vellum scrolls, its rival at Pergamum that included many works in parchment, the Bibliotheca Ulpia of Rome, and the Imperial Library at Byzantium set up by the Constantine the Great in the 4th century A.D China has also a long tradition of record keeping and book collecting, in private libraries as well as in centralized government libraries.

For the next 1,000 years during the Middle Ages (which lasted from the 5th century to the 15th century), medieval libraries in Europe acquired, copied and disseminated texts by relying on correspondence between monasteries. By that time, Catholic bishops have taken control of all church property, including manuscript collections in libraries. Papyrus had been replaced by parchment codex, an early form of book consisting of bundles of folded parchments, inscribed on both sides stitched together and placed between protective covers, some ornately done with colors and jewels.

By the middle of the 6th century, Benedictine monks were required to read daily. Thus, missionary monks traveled throughout rural Europe to establish isolated monasteries which almost always included libraries. By contemporary standards, monastery libraries were small but they were instrumental in copying and distribution of books and manuscripts thus spreading Latin culture. By perpetuating copying practices, over time monastic scribes also helped standardize orthography (the art or study of correct spelling), Calligraphy (the art or study of handwriting), and punctuation. …

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