Skip to Main Content

Home Explore Careers

Librarians

History

It may be hard to believe, but libraries have been around since 3000 B.C. Ancient Sumerian libraries contained clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions (written with a stylus) baked onto them, and Egyptian libraries housed hieroglyphic accounts recorded on papyrus rolls. These libraries were available only to members of royalty, very wealthy families, or religious groups that devoted time and effort to transcription. The people who were charged with caring for collections within these libraries could be considered the world's first librarians.  

Libraries continued to be available only to the elite until the Middle Ages, when many private institutions were destroyed by wars. The preservation of many ancient library materials can be attributed to orders of monks who diligently copied ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as the Bible and other religious texts, and protected materials in their monasteries. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century allowed books to be made more quickly and disseminated more widely. Books went from palaces and churches to the homes of the common people.

In 1638, John Harvard left his private collection of books to the Massachusetts Bay Colony's new college, which was later named for him; this collection became the foundation for the first library in the United States. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin initiated the idea of a library from which books could be borrowed. From these beginnings, thousands of public, private, and special libraries have grown, as has the need for trained professionals to manage the collections. The idea of a lending library brought librarians into a more public arena; they were no longer just the keepers of knowledge, but also the professionals who made information available to everyone.

Although the education and certification processes have changed drastically, the field of librarianship has been around since the first clay tablet was stored in an ancient government building. Long before formal courses of study were developed for the training of librarians, church and government leaders appointed educated, organized individuals to collect informational materials and store them in a manner that would enable materials to be found when needed. In 1627, Gabriel Naude wrote Advice on Establishing a Library, a practical guide on how to establish a library, offering advice on organizing and using collections of informational materials.

Over the years the duties of librarians have evolved along with the development of different kinds of libraries and the development of new technologies. In recent years libraries have expanded services and now distribute films, MP3s, compact discs, digital video discs (DVDs), videos, Braille books, and audio books. A wealth of information is available through multimedia CD-ROMs, computer database vendors, and the Internet. Librarians are charged with effectively and efficiently utilizing—and teaching the public how to utilize—the information available to them. From ancient Egyptians carefully storing papyrus rolls, to monks of the Middle Ages copying down books of the Bible, to special collections librarians studying materials cared for by their predecessors, librarianship is a profession that crosses the boundaries of time and space.