Libraries as Vessels of Political Power
The earliest libraries were first and foremost vessels of political power, consolidating the accumulated intellectual capital of the early nation-states and providing a durable link with the past by invoking religious authority and asserting a relationship to the gods. The gods, by extension, protected the library, and the genealogical relationships of the gods, echoing old folk taxonomies, found a new manifestation in the nested hierarchies of state institutions.
The first libraries existed primarily to support these growing imperial hierarchies. In China, the earliest known library dates to 1400 [B.C.E.]. In Egypt, Rameses II established a sacred library at Thebes in 1225 [B.C.E.]. The first Indian manuscript collections date as far back as 1000 [B.C.E.]. Each of these great imperial civilizations seems to have progressed along a markedly similar (though far from identical) path: Agricultural settlements developed a commercial facility for writing, enabling them to make the transition from tribal societies to nation-states. As some of those nation-states grew into empires, they began producing more varied forms of literature that were eventually gathered into libraries.
The fates of those libraries would prove no less turbulent than the empires that built them. Indeed, the advent of literacy and book making has invariably been accompanied by violence and political turmoil. When the Emperor Shi Huangdi consolidated power over the Chinese Empire in 213 [B.C.E.], he promptly ordered an imperial biblioclasm, commanding the destruction of every book in the kingdom. Soldiers demolished the old royal library, a priceless trove of early Confucian and Taoist texts known as the Heavenly Archives (whose most famous curator was Lao Tzu). After clearing the brush of the prior regime’s intellectual legacy, the emperor created a new library, complete with a new classification system to reflect the new imperial order….