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 highlights of library history, then recommend books we love that put the library front and center: nerdy nonfiction that explores bookshelves and archives, a sweeping literary cycle about a magical library, a historical novel with dueling timelines, and an exuberant story about a secret library. Plus, a chat with Frank Collerius, manager of the Jefferson Market Library branch of the New York Public Library and co-host of the podcast The Librarian Is In. (show notes / transcript)
In this ep, we discuss the magic of libraries and recommend library-centric books we love, including book-nerd-approved nonfiction, a lyrical literary cycle, a historical novel, and a joyous tale of a secret library.
For readers, the book-lined shelves of libraries and archives are a dreamy backdrop for stories that resonate. These novels and nonfiction titles explore the drama, adventure, and history of our favorite bookish places.
We love a character that's got a salty side to balance the sweetness, and that's just what we get in Peggy, the librarian. These caramels are a tribute to her ability to give her whole heart when it matters the most.
The stacks, backrooms, and archives in libraries all over the world are filled with countless treasures — rare books, photos, parchments, maps — that place us in history. Instagram lets us take a peek from where we sit.
Gilded bookshelves, antique globes, allegorical ceiling frescoes, thousands of books, church ruins, trompe l'oeil — we took it all in on a tour of the Strahov Monastery Library and the Břevnov Monastery in Prague.
Mary Kingsbury was the first professional school librarian in American history. She started as a teacher in Latin, math, geography, and zoology — not bad for a girl who's father thought she didn't need an education.
It looks like the enchanted library of your dreams, but it's really the East Room of banker J.P. Morgan's 1906 Library, the heart of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Commence swooning.
The Municipal Library of Prague (_Městská knihovna v Praze_) is close to the city center, and it's a quiet, magical place to escape the crush of Old Town and relax in the serenity of bookland. Visitors welcome.
Soft light illuminates floor-to-ceiling shelves of gilt-spined books in the libraries of the Strahov Monastery. But it's not all Latin texts and antique globes: a narwhal horn and a giant crab decorate the hallway.
Here! This is where we'd like to teleport this afternoon to spend a few hours reading amidst the colorful bookshelves. Located in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this library has been impersonating a magical portal since 1837.
A sinful but repentant monk, an assist from the devil, an 800-year-old book, potential madness, and a rivalry between Bohemia and Sweden. This story of the Codex Gigas, also known as The Devil's Bible, has everything.
Let's take a virtual tour of stunning libraries from Europe to the UK and across the pond to NYC. It's a celebration of free-thinking, love of learning, and really tall bookshelves. No passport nor library card required.
This award-winning building is a work of art itself, with windows that frame the natural beauty of its setting on the waterfront. Inside, you'll find a lovely glass mural, history and art exhibits, and so many books.
The VAC Library in Hanoi is a unique open-air structure that invites play along with learning. Solar-powered and self-sustaining, it's a modern (beautiful) example of how libraries can interact with the environment.
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Top image courtesy of Ioan Florin Cnejevici/Shutterstock.