The act of collecting written knowledge is as old as civilisation itself. About 30,000 clay tablets found in ancient Mesopotamia date back more than 5000 years. Archaeologists have found papyrus scrolls from 1300-1200BC in the ancient Egyptian cities of Amarna and Thebes, while in ancient Greece, public and private libraries flourished; the philosopher Aristotle is particularly famous for having a large private collection.
The Great Library of Alexandria founded around 300BC was the most famed literary repository in the ancient world, and much of what is considered to be literary scholarship began in the Alexandria Library, making it a model for other libraries to follow.
In New Zealand, the first public library opened in Wellington in 1841. Established by a group of the city’s first settlers, the library operated out of the area now occupied by the Wellington cenotaph. In 1893, a council-owned public library was opened, not far from what is now the central branch of Wellington City Libraries.
The provision of a library was of high importance to the first European settlers and reflects both humankind’s thirst for knowledge and our long-held desire to collate the written word. Prior to the departure of the first ships from Europe, a committee had been established to “make provision for the Literary, Scientific and Philanthropic Institutions of the new Colony”. This ensured that the first settlers arrived laden with donations of books.
Today, the Wellington Public Library is just one of hundreds across the country committed to the restoration of artefacts and the collection and sharing of knowledge. In 1987, the new National Library building was opened (having been formed from the original Parliamentary Library). Today the building is a national institution dedicated to collecting New Zealand’s history, bringing people together with knowledge networks and helping to turn that knowledge into value.
A Place for Community
With the move to online, how important is it to still have a library as a physical space? Maggie Patton is the head of Research and Discovery team at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. She says maintaining a physical space for a library is crucial. “It is incredibly important and a number of studies have been done that show this,” says Patton.
Libraries are increasingly centres for communities to come together to not only access information, but also to connect with others in person – an increasingly rare proposition in the isolating digital age.
New parents connect at baby storytimes, elderly people make use of free computer education programs, and children and young people use the space to meet up after school.
As the author and political scientist Robert Putnam wrote: “People may go to the library looking mainly for information, but they find each other there.”