The first institution that we might recognize as a library dates back about 5000 years, to a collection of stone tablets inscribed with cuneiform script in the ancient city of Ebla (in what’s now Syria). The desire to curate knowledge so it can be shared feels timeless. This notion of pooling resources inside one ‘house’ where people can gather to learn, to discuss ideas, to swap stories, to find community is one that has survived the ages.
Libraries began, mostly, in religious institutions — like the Al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 by a woman. All hail Fatima al-Fihri, who used her inheritance to start a university, mosque, and library still operating today. In the Middle Ages, monks were at the helm of learning, spending years creating illuminated manuscripts that were chained to the shelves to prevent them from wandering away.
But soon, where soon is a few hundred years, the printing press and cheap paper meant that books could be in the hands of just about everyone. Penny dreadfuls and dime novels could be found in the same cities as dignified gilt-edged, Morocco leather volumes, and that mix of high and low is exactly what libraries should be.
The library is a sacred and celebratory place, filled with objects, yes — but inside those objects are imagination and possibility, heartbreak and triumph, silliness and seriousness and the whole range of human emotion and the entire history of science and art and philosophy… so far.
In this episode, we discuss some of the highlights and larger-than-life personalities of library history, then recommend books we love that put the library front and center. We’ve got two wonderfully nerdy nonfiction books that explore bookshelves and archives, a sweeping literary cycle centered around a magical library, a historical novel with dueling timelines, and an exuberant story about a secret library.
For a complete roundup of all the books we recommend, plus a full transcript and the other cool stuff we talked about, visit the Episode 15 show notes.
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