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Early Libraries: 800s CE

Let's examine the rise of Islamic libraries and medical school libraries.

Like the Bible in Christianity and the Torah in Judaism, the Quran (Koran) places a central role in the intellectual tradition of the Islamic world. From the beginnings of Islam, people recorded important information related to their faith and sought to share it with others. Libraries became an important element of this knowledge sharing.

The image below shows a Quran from the 9th century.

Quran Wikimedia Commons PD

In Islam, this sharing of knowledge takes on a special meaning. According to Sardar (1999),

"the all-embracing concept of ilm shaped the outlook of the Muslim people, from the very beginning of Islam. Islam actually made the pursuit of knowledge a religious obligation: by definition, to be a Muslim is to be deeply entrenched in the generation, production, processing and dissemination of knowledge. Moreover, the concept of ilm is not a limiting or elitist notion. Ilm is distributive knowledge: it is not a monopoly of individuals, class, group or sex: it is not an obligation only for a few, absolving the vast majority of society; it is not limited to a particular field of inquiry or discipline but covers all dimensions of human awareness and the entire spectrum of natural phenomena. Indeed, Islam places ilm at par with adl: the pursuit of knowledge is as important as the pursuit of justice. Just as adl is essentially distributive justice, so is ilm distributive knowledge. One is an instrument for achieving the other. The ideal goal of the worldview of Islam, the establishment of a just and equitable society, cannot be achieved without the instrument of distributive knowledge. Only when knowledge is widely and easily available to all segments of society can justice be established in its Islamic manifestations."

According to Sardar (1991), libraries

"were considered a trust from God, the central libraries were completely at the disposal of the public; as such they were truly public libraries, open to individuals from all backgrounds and classes who were invited to use them, to read and freely copy any manuscript they liked. Moreover, these libraries were not just storehouses of books, but working libraries in every sense. Apart from intensive research programmes, they were also the focus of assembly for discussions, lectures, debates and other public activities."

Most of the books took the form of codex made of paper. Imamuddin (1983) notes that the libraries were designed in "such a way that the whole library was visible from one central point".

In 795 CE, a paper mill was established in Baghdad and the Chinese art of paper making using linen and hemp was begun. As a result, number of manuscripts was greatly increased. Bookshops were often set up around the main mosque. These bookshops provided paper and copyists.

Libraries were common. Charitable donations were encouraged in Islamic law allowing Muslim book collectors to donate to libraries of mosques. Through these donations, mosque libraries grew.

Many fee-based reading rooms were established. Both religious and secular literature was popular.

Sufiya Mosque Library, Grand Umayyad Mosque

A collection of 10,000 volumes was bequeathed by Prince Sayf al-Dawla.

House of Wisdom - Bait al-Hikmah
Baghdad, Iraq

Abbasid Wikimedia Commons PDEstablished during the reign of al-Ma'mum (813-833 CE), the library became a place where well-known scholars came to share ideas and culture. Abbasid Caliph Hanin ar-Rashid founded the library in 830 CE, this complex included a library as well as a research institute and translation bureau. The library had separate rooms for copiers, binders, and librarians.

Scholars were employed to translate Aristotle's works into Arabic. Well-known Muslim philosopher Al-Kindi wrote nearly three hundred books on a wide range of subjects for the library.

The image on the right shows a scientific manuscript from this time period.

Agents were sent to places like Egypt and India to collect rare and unique materials. Many of the listings found in bibliographies by Ibn al-Nadim and Haji Khalifah come from this library.

Scholars that were persecuted by the Byzantine Empires were encouraged to study in Baghdad. Students of all races and religions were welcome. Both the men and women of the upper and middle classes were literate.

The House of Wisdom included a research and educational institute that was used for translating and preserving books. In addition, observatories were created that supported the study of the humanities and sciences. A great collection was established that included the works of Persian, Indian, Greek, Chinese, and other authors. The library was noted for its medical collection.

Books were organized by subjects and categories. Catalogs were made to assign the many users in locating works.

Like all the libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed in 1258 during the Mongol invasion.

Medical School Wikimedia CommonsSchola Medica Salernitana
Salerno, Italy

The first medieval medical school, Schola Medica Salernitana was an important center for medical knowledge. The school was situated in the dispensary of the Monte Cassino Monastery which housed valuable texts it its library. It's unknown if a separate medical library was maintained. However it's known that people came from all over to learn the art of medicine.

By 1077, Salerno was known as the Town of Hippocrates. The school was known for merging various medical traditions. The school published a number of books that were kept in many European libraries.

The image on the right shows the school.


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Immamuddin, S.M. (1983). Some Leading Muslim Libraries of the World. Islamic Foundation.

Sardar, Ziauddin (ed) (1991). How We Know: Ilm and the Revival of Knowledge. Grey Seals Books. Available: http://multiworldindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/how-we-know.rtf

Sibai, M. (1987). Mosque Libraries: An Historical Study. Mansell Publishing.

Weit, Gaston (1971). Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate. University of Oklahoma Press.

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