10 of the Oldest Libraries in the World

6 min read

Simply stated, libraries hold not just a wealth of knowledge, but marvelous treasures, wondrous architecture, ancient history and so much more . Today’s libraries 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? To think that even with the availability of modern online search engines, many students still heavily rely on libraries to conduct research. And, at times, they spend time getting lost in all the wonderful stories contained within. The oldest libraries in the world have been the iconic symbol of knowledge for millennia and still have much to offer even in this digital age.

Though we may not value libraries as much as we have in our past, libraries continue to be important to our society. One particular library in our list even became a symbol for the destruction of culture and knowledge. With the amount of books we have today, as well as our access to its data online, we have an immense amount of knowledge at our fingertips that the ancients couldn’t have dreamed of? Regardless, here are 10 of the oldest libraries in the world we know today.

Also see: 15 Coolest Bookstores to Visit

10. Hereford Cathedral’s Chained Library (1611) – England

Nowadays, you can easily print 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 became accessible to all, long chains locked books into shelves so anyone could read them, but not steal as the books were immensely valuable.. This was the purpose of chained libraries. However, once printing became more widespread and large amount of copies were made, books became much less valuable.

In our first featured 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 stand strong in Hereford, England with valuable manuscripts drawn with golden illustrations and handwriting. The amount of books, manuscripts, and documents combined number 1,729.

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

9. University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries (1602) – England

Second largest in Britain and the oldest in Europe, this reference library started as a small chained library under the dying will of the Bishop of Worcester in 1327. With the assistance of a Duke’s donations, the library grew and had to move to a larger location in 1488. The library was later named after it’s greatest benefacator as “Duke Humfrey’s Library”.

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

Today, the second of the oldest libraries has spread all across Oxford. This library even has its own website to help you with any of your library needs if you happen to be in the area.

8. Michaelangelo’s Laurentian Library (1571) – Italy

Also known as the “Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana”, this library in Florence, Italy happens to be one of Michelangelo’s magnificent creations. Commissioned by Pope Clement VII, the architecture is said to be one of his masterpieces and certainly an important achievement. Sadly, it opened seven years after his death in 1571 and was left unfinished.

One of the oldest libraries in Italy, this structure 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 – a truly valuable piece of history.

7. Vatican Apostolic Library (1475) – Vatican City

Forth on the list of the world’s oldest libraries is the Vatican Apostolic Library, or the “Vatican Library” for short which was established in 1475. The history of this library goes far beyond than this date, which makes it quite possibly the oldest library in the world. This library contains volumes dating back to the 1st century.

Prior to its formal creation, many libraries were 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 dedicated public library. This library’s collection grew and, after his death, the “Palatine Library” came to officially exist in 1475. Two million items have been cataloged within the library as of 1992.

Today, if you’re able to prove your qualifications and have some solid reasoning, you can enter this research library to investigate topics such as religion and Greek and Latin classical culture. If you aren’t able to visit in person, there is an online collection of its manuscripts which can be seen on the DigiVatLib service.

6. Malatestiana Library (1452) – Italy

Part of UNESCO’s famed “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 library is the fifth oldest on our list and holds over four hundred thousand books. 343 of this library’s books are chained to tables for reading. Visitors say that they find peace and solitude while visiting the library which has been excellently preserved since its opening.

5. Wells Cathedral’s Library (Between 1430 to 1508) – England

The sixth in our list of the world’s oldest libraries belongs to a library located within Wells Cathedral in Wells, Somerset (England). Wells Cathedral Library houses a collection among three rooms. These are named 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.

4. National Library of France (1368) – France

Located in Paris, is our seventh in our list of the world’s oldest libraries which is aptly named ‘Bibliothèque nationale de France’ or the National Library of France in English. This library was originally France’s first royal library which was commissioned by Charles V in 1368. I now houses forty million items from 14 million books and journals; newspapers and magazines; recordings; maps, stamps, and drawings and over 180,000 manuscripts and prints.

3. Sorbonne Interuniversity Library (1289) – France

The ‘Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne’ is one of the most famous and oldest libraries in the world. Containing more than two million documents in its collection, this library became a part of the University of Paris and is now operated and used by five universities. This library has had many different names throughout its lifetime, but its collection of two million has continued to grow yearly.

2. Al-Qarawiyyin Library – Morocco

Known 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 keeps around four thousand manuscripts and had recently been opened to the public in 2016. It is now functional for use with restored facilities.

1. St. Catherine’s Monastery Library (565) – Egypt

At Mount Sinai, Egypt lies the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which is the last of our list of the oldest libraries in the world. It is only second to the Vatican Library in preserving the largest collection of early manuscripts and codices in the world. Like many of the libraries we have listed, these important manuscripts have been digitized for further study and research. This ancient structure is one of the oldest libraries in the world and is a marvel to experience.

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). These libraries no longer exist but were true wonders of the world during they time in existence.

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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