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Imagine the Roman soldiers with their tunics coming to borrow the latest Latin novel [Photo by Pauline Andan on Unsplash]

In the murky early history of libraries, there are several claims that the first public library was established in the ancient Roman Empire. Trying to sort out the validity of this claim seems to depend on what you mean by “public”. In Libraries: A Fragile History (Pettegree and der Weduwen 2001), the authors state (on page 23) “Rome boasted nothing that we would recognise as a public library”, while the Wikipedia entry for “library” states “By the 4th century AD, there were at least two dozen public libraries in the city of Rome itself”, and gives a source for this claim. The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd edition, the only one I have free access to, since I as an individual am not a subscriber to Oxford Reference Online) talks about “public” libraries, but does not explain what “public” is : “Caesar planned a public library in Rome, under Varro’s direction. [OCD, 3rd edition, entry for “libraries].

Today, we mean by a public library, one that is freely open to anyone both for reading and for borrowing. Unfortunately, the term “public” has several interpretations, and discussions of ancient libraries are rather muddied by using the term “public” in more than one way. This looks like the explanation for the confusion above. It would appear, both from the OCD and from Pettegree and der Weduwen, that these libraries were public in the sense that (1) they were publicly funded, and that (2) they allowed access to a reading room, but not borrowing privileges – so does that make them public? The question then is, would everyone have equal access to the reading room? Today, would you describe the British Library Reading Room as a public library? Probably not, but only because you can’t borrow the books.

Let’s dig a bit deeper. Pettegree and der Weduwen have a reference to an article by T Keith Dix, entitled “Public Libraries” in Ancient Rome: Ideology and Reality”, but unfortunately this is a subscription-only article. It is held on JSTOR, which usually provides limited free access to everyone, but for some reason they display a message “This item is not available for free online reading”. Am I the only person to see the irony here that I don’t have permission to read an article about the public provision of books?

Screenshot from JSTOR

But a bit of searching produced another article that looked promising. The same author, T Keith Dix, with George Houston, wrote an article “Public Libraries in the city of Rome” (2006), which is freely available online.

First, these two authors take the trouble to define “public library”:

Most simply … it means “property of the Roman people”, while “an obvious secondary meaning of “public” is “open or accessible to any Roman”.

Finally, many pages into the article, came the answer to my question: Who used the public libraries in Rome?

Our evidence indicates, then, that the public libraries of the Empire [were] private spaces where scholars and friends assembled to discuss literature, philosophy, antiquarian problems, and the like. No woman, no slave on his own, no tradesman or craftsman, no administrator seeking public records, is ever mentioned in any public library in Rome.

In other words, these libraries were not public, in the modern sense.

Now my curiosity is aroused, I want to find the date of the first public library. Since I am reading Pettegree and der Weduwen’s The Library, it would seem reasonable to expect that the answer will be there, but, sadly, the index to Pettegree and de Weduwen has over 80 pages of references to public libraries, so the (no doubt hand-generated) index is of no value whatever to me. I’ll let you know once I have read the book and discovered this crucial date in library history.

In conclusion, what have I learned from this relatively simple information retrieval exercise?

  1. Using a term such as “public” in a reference work like the OCD is unhelpful and very likely misleading.
  2. Using a print volume with a hand-created index is often a tediously slow way to find information.
  3. For this question, Wikipedia provided dates and sources that were impressively reliable.
  4. Most importantly, we are a long way from the world of scholarly learning being openly accessible to everyone. Access is restricted by university presses (such as Oxford) and scholarly publishers (such as the University of Texas Press, the publisher of the Keith Dix article listed in JSTOR, but not available for reading). Open Access, or open research, particularly in the humanities, has a long way to go.