Libraries predate books.
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Next Fact

Libraries predate books.

While books are a fixture of today’s libraries, humans long constructed great centers of learning without them. That includes one of the oldest known significant libraries in history: the Library of Ashurbanipal. This library, established in modern-day Mosul, Iraq, by the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BCE, contained nothing we would recognize today as a book. Instead, it was a repository of 30,000 clay tablets and writing boards covered in cuneiform — the oldest writing system in the world. Much like your local public library, this royal collection covered a variety of subjects, including legislation, financial statements, divination, hymns, medicine, literature, and astronomy. 

Ancient Greeks invented paper.
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It's a Fib
The ancient Greeks can be thanked for a great many things, but paper isn’t one of them. On March 11, 105 CE, court official Cai Lun presented his papermaking process to Emperor He of the Han dynasty. It’d take many centuries, but the idea transformed the world.

While we know when this library flourished, defining the appearance of the earliest book is slightly murkier. The Egyptians, for example, are known to have written on papyrus scrolls; when the Library of Alexandria in Egypt burned in the first century BCE, 40,000 priceless scrolls were lost. By about the second century CE, Romans began using bound codexes, a kind of proto-book that consisted of papyrus or parchment sheets between wooden covers. The arrival of Christianity made the codex immensely popular, and it basically replaced the scroll by the sixth century CE. Block-printed books showed up in China around 700 CE, although Europe didn’t see anything similar until Johannes Gutenberg invented mechanical movable type around 1448. So while libraries haven’t always housed books, they have been repositories of human knowledge — in whatever form it might take.

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Numbers Don’t Lie
Number of items in the Library of Congress
173 million
Size (in square feet) of Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s Books, the largest bookstore in the world
Year William Caxton published “The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye,” the first book printed in English
Number of characters in Marcel Proust’s novel “À la recherche du temps perdu,” the world’s longest novel
The oldest surviving literary work is thought to be “_______,” composed 4,000 years ago.
The oldest surviving literary work is thought to be “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” composed 4,000 years ago.
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Think Twice
The Library of Congress has burned twice.

The U.S. Library of Congress contains the largest collection of published books in world history — but it wasn’t an easy journey getting there. During the War of 1812, the British set fire to the Capitol building, which contained the 3,000-volume Library of Congress. It was completely consumed in the conflagration. To reestablish the library, Congress purchased former President Thomas Jefferson’s book collection — the largest in the U.S. at the time — for $23,950. Sadly, a second fire, on Christmas Eve 1851, consumed a large portion of that library, including many of Jefferson’s original volumes. Two years later, Congress constructed a new library, this time made from flame-resistant cast iron.

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