10 Fascinating facts about libraries

Reader's Digest Editors

Libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from the humble village library to the biggest library in the world, the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C., but each represents a gateway to infinite knowledge. My latest book, A Library Miscellany, is a celebration of libraries, packed full of illuminating lists, fun facts and potted histories. Below are my ten favourite facts about libraries.


Claire Cock-Starkey

The oldest library in the world dates from the seventh century BC

The Library of Ashurbanipal in Ninevah, Assyria (now in Iraq), established by Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668–c.630 BC), is thought to be one of the oldest libraries in the world. Archaeologists re-discovered the site in the 1850s, uncovering over 30,000 cuneiform tablets on history and law which appeared to have been arranged in a systematic fashion.

There’s a library of smells in France

The Osmothèque is a library of smells in Versailles, France. Founded in 1990, the Osmothèque is a repository for perfumes and contains over 3,200 scents, some 400 of which are no longer made. The collection is an archive of perfume-making history, and many fragrance houses and parfumiers have kindly donated samples of perfumes, both current and historical, in order to safeguard their formulas.

Isaac Asimov has a book in nearly every category of the Dewey Decimal Classification System

It’s said that prolific writer Isaac Asimov is the only person to have published books which have been represented in nine of the ten major Dewey Classification System categories. The system was developed by Melvil Dewey in 1873. It’s been adopted by more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries. The scheme works hierarchically by dividing knowledge into ten main subjects, meaning that books within the same subject group can be shelved together. It’s thought that the only category Asimov failed to produce a book in was “100 Philosophy.”

The Vatican’s Secret Archive isn’t really secret

The Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum or Vatican Secret Archive was created by Pope Paul V in 1612. It contains all the acts passed by the Holy See, plus papal correspondence, state papers and account books. The archive belongs to the reigning pope and when he dies it passes on to his successor. The use of the word “secret” in the title derives from the old usage of the word meaning private or personal—relating to the fact that the archive is, in effect, the private archive of the papacy. The archives have been available to researchers since 1881 and today contain items accumulated in over 600 archival groups (the earliest of which is from the eighth century) on 53 miles of shelving.

There’s a Magician’s Library in New York

The Conjuring Arts Research Center was established in 2003 in Manhattan, New York. A non-profit organisation, its primary role is as a library for books on magic and related arts such as hypnosis, ventriloquism, juggling and sleight of hand. The library currently holds over 12,000 books on magic in numerous different languages and includes rare texts from the 15th century. The collection is especially strong on early magic, holding over 500 books on magic printed before 1700. As well as books the library holds a number of magic periodicals, has an extensive collection of manuscripts featuring magic methods, and holds some 20,000 items of correspondence between magicians.

Librarians used to have to learn a specific style of handwriting

“Library hand” was a specific rounded style of cursive script that was developed to standardise handwriting, and was taught in schools for librarians from the 19th century into the mid-20th century. During the period when library catalogues were filed on index cards legibility was of extreme importance and it was thought useful for all librarians to share a standard handwriting. The rise of the typewriter in the early 20th century and the use of computerised cataloguing systems negated the need for a standard library hand and the practice died out.

Some libraries employ novel bug-busting methods

At the Rococo Library in Portugal’s Mafra National Palace, a colony of bats is allowed to reside in the library to eat the book-damaging bugs. During the day the bats sleep behind the elaborate book cases, only emerging at night when the library is closed to hoover up all the pesky insects. Every morning before the library opens, the cleaners must sweep up the scat they drop, a small price to pay to preserve the collection.

You can visit the real-life Winnie-the-Pooh

A A Milne purchased a teddy bear from Harrods for his son, Christopher Robin, in 1921. The bear was named Winnie-the-pooh after a real bear named Winnipeg at London zoo, and a swan who featured in Milne’s When We Were Very Young. In 1926, Milne and illustrator E H Shepherd brought Pooh and his friends alive in their beloved children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh. Since 1987 Christopher Robin’s original stuffed bear, plus his companions Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Piglet have been owned by New York Public Library where they are displayed, much to the delight of visiting children (and grown-ups).

One of the most overdue library books in the world was returned after 122 years

In 2011 Camden School of Arts lending library in Australia had a first edition of Charles Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants returned to them. The book had been checked out in 1889 and had lain among the book collection of a retired veterinarian before the library stamp was noticed and the book returned, some 122 years late.

The rare books library at Harvard only exists because of the sinking of the Titanic

Book collector and Harvard graduate Harry Elkins Widener perished during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and as a result his mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, endowed a library in his honour at Harvard. The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library was established in 1915 and holds Widener’s personal book collection of 3,300 rare works at its heart. A legend persists that due to her son’s fate, Mrs Widener made it a condition of her donation that all students must learn to swim. A second myth tells that she bequeathed an extra pot of money to ensure that all students could daily have ice cream for pudding as it was her son’s favourite dessert. Unfortunately there is no evidence that either of these charming requests is true.

A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey is published by Bodleian at £9.99