Oldest Libraries in the World

Whether you visit libraries daily or rarely, this space full of books holds all the information we need without the Internet. To think that even with online search engines, many students still rely on these places to do research… or spend time getting lost in all its stories. Today’s libraries are known to provide free learning for all, but did you know that some of the oldest libraries required you to pay them before borrowing? Or that many of its books were highly treasured?

Though we may not value libraries as much as before, one particular library in our list became a symbol for the destruction of culture of knowledge. With the amount of books we have today, as well as our access to its data online, would one feel the same way with libraries today? Regardless, here are 10 of the oldest libraries in the world we know today.

Also see: 15 Coolest Bookstores to Visit

1. Hereford Cathedral’s Chained Library (1611)

Oldest Libraries in the World

Nowadays, you can easily build your own book with a printer and some extra materials, but back in the 17th century, printing involved your hands, a pen, and plenty of ink. This meant that people poured labor into writing and copying books for hundreds—even THOUSANDS—of hours. Once libraries were, for once, accessible to all, long chains locked books into shelves so anyone can read, but not steal. This was the purpose of chained libraries. However, once printing came to be and copies were made, books became less valuable.

In our first of the oldest libraries in the world is the largest and one of the last remaining chained libraries: the Hereford Cathedral Library. Having rare books such as the “Hereford Gospels” (780) and documents such as Henry III’s Magna Carta (1217), it continues to exist in Hereford, England with valuable manuscripts drawn with golden illustrations and handwriting. The amount of books, manuscripts, and documents surpass 1,729.

Anyone can freely visit the library (now an exhibition) in the Hereford Cathedral.

2. University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries (1602)

Oldest Libraries in the World

Second largest in Britain and oldest in Europe, this reference library started as a small chained library under the dying will of a Bishop of Worcester in 1327. With the assistance of a Duke’s donations, the library had to move to a bigger area in 1488. This room was later named under him as “Duke Humfrey’s Library”.

A man named Thomas Bodley further helped the growth of the library by offering his own books, renaming the collection as the “Bodleian Library” we know today. Progress came after as the library extended to more buildings until it was capable of filling more than twelve million books worldwide.

Today, the second of the oldest libraries are spread across Oxford and even have their own website to help you with any of your library needs… if you happen to be in the area.

3. Michaelangelo’s Laurentian Library (1571)

Oldest Libraries in the World

Also known as the "Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana", this library in Florence, Italy happens to be one of Michelangelo's creations. As a commission from Pope Clement VII, the architecture was also said to be one of his masterpieces and an important achievement. Sadly, it opened seven years after his death in 1571 and was left unfinished.

This third of the oldest libraries carries an assortment of more than 120,000 prints and around 15,000 of manuscripts, papyri, and other documents. It also shelters the “Nahuatl Florentine Codex” which contains information of Aztec living prior to conquest.

4. Vatican Apostolic Library (1475)

Oldest Libraries in the World

Our fourth of the oldest libraries in the world is the Vatican Apostolic Library, or the “Vatican Library” for short established in 1475. Its history goes further than this date, which makes it much older, due to volumes dating back to the 1st century.

Prior to its formal creation, its libraries scattered across Italy. In the middle of the 14th century, Pope Nicholas V wanted scholars to see Rome as a place for learning and knowledge and developed a public library. Its collection grew and, even after his death, “Palatine Library” came to exist in 1475. Two million items were catalogued in the library by 1992.

Today, if you’re able to prove your qualifications and your reasons, you can enter this research library for topics such as religion and Greek and Latin classical culture. An online collection of its manuscripts can be seen on the DigiVatLib service.

5. Malatestiana Library (1452)

Oldest Libraries in the World

Part of UNESCO's "Memory of the World" sites, the Biblioteca Malatestiana (or Malatesta Novello Liibrary) is a public library in Cesena, Italy and said to be the first of its kind, as well as a monastic library, in all of Europe. This fifth of the oldest libraries holds over four hundred thousand books with 343 of its books chained to tables for reading. Visitors say that they find peace and solitude staying in the library which has been preserved since its opening.

6. Wells Cathedral's Library (Between 1430 to 1508)

Oldest Libraries in the World

The sixth of the oldest libraries belongs to a library in Wells Cathedral in Wells, Somerset (England). It has a collection housed in three rooms, namely the “Muniment Room” (for early documents), the “Chained Library” (before 1800s), and the “Reading Room” (after 1800s). The Chained Library can only be seen through the Reading Room, where visitors are free to take pictures.

7. National Library of France (1368)

Oldest Libraries in the World

In Paris, there is our seventh of the oldest libraries, ‘Bibliothèque nationale de France’ or the National Library of France in English. Originally France’s first royal library from Charles V in 1368, it now houses forty million items from 14 million books and journals; newspapers and magazines; recordings; maps, stamps, and drawings; over 180,000 manuscripts and prints.

8. Sorbonne Interuniversity Library (1289)

Oldest Libraries in the World

(Source picture: Zantastik at Wikimedia.org)

The ‘Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne’ is the eighth of the oldest libraries in the world. Obtaining more than two million in its collection, it became a part of the University of Paris and is operated by five universities. It had different names throughout its lifetime, but its collection of two million continues to grow yearly.

9. Al-Qarawiyyin Library

Oldest Libraries in the World

Acknowledged as the oldest library in the world, our ninth entry resides in what is also the oldest operating university in the world. Located in Fez, Morocco, this library kept around four thousand manuscripts and had recently been opened to the public in 2016. It is now functional for use with restored facilities.

10. St. Catherine’s Monastery Library (565)

Oldest Libraries in the World

At Mount Sinai, Egypt lies the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which also has our tenth of the oldest libraries in the world. It is second to the Vatican Library in preserving the largest collection of early manuscripts and codices in the world. Like many of the libraries listed, these important manuscripts have been digitized for further study and research.

Conclusion

Notable mentions are the truly older-than-the-oldest libraries: the “Royal Library of Alexandria” (between 300 BC to 201 BC in Alexandria, Egypt) and the “Library of Ashurbanipal” (between 668 to 630 BC in Mosul, Iraq).

What did you think of our list of 10 of the oldest libraries in the world? Is there a library you would like to visit? Type us a comment and let ATL know.

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