Where on earth is the oldest library in the world?

Thinking in Public

The ruins of the Library of Ebla, 55km outside of modern-day Aleppo, Syria

This article features the research of Dr. Lydia Pyne, Writer and Historian

Do you have a bookshelf in your home or office? Is it organized a specific way? Sometimes people place their books apparently “randomly,” but more often, some kind of pattern is chosen: maybe color, kind of book, publisher, or alphabetically by author’s last name. A bookshelf can tell a lot about a person—their hobbies, interests, and aspirations. And bookshelves, like the books they contain—don’t last forever. For one reason or another they get dismantled, re-arranged, lent, or destroyed.

Can you imagine a bookshelf—and all the “books” it held—becoming almost indestructible? It’s probably hard to picture because modern books are made out of paper and are susceptible to tearing, water-damage, and incineration. This makes preserving them a challenge. But books weren’t always made of paper. In fact, the oldest-known bookshelves (over 4,000 years old), located outside of modern-day Aleppo, Syria, contained texts made out of clay.

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered 18,000 cuneiform tablets dating to 2300 BCE, when the ancient city of Ebla was burned by Akkadian invaders. The city’s library had wooden shelves, which collapsed, trapping the cuneiform tablets. When the clay tablets came in contact with the fire they were not destroyed but preserved, like ceramics fired in a kiln.

This fortunate coincidence allows scholars to learn about the Ebla civilization and the knowledge they shared. Historian Lydia Pyne explains that the modest 11-by-13-foot library featured  “shelves stocked with cuneiform tablets lined the room on three sides… The spacing of the library shelves offered enough room for a reader to reach into the shelf and carefully tip the tablets forward allowing a clear view of the texts at the back of the shelves.”

A reconstruction of the library at Ebla. The tablets are arranged to be read straight-on with the cuneiform writing facing outward to the reader. The shelves offered enough room for the reader to reach into the shelf and tip the tablets forward, allowing a clear view of those at the back.

©History Today

Unlike modern library goers, who skim for books by looking at spines, Ebla patrons would skim through tablets like they were looking through a CD or magazine display. Each tablet had an inscribed placard attached to the shelf or tablet so the texts could be easily located. Long before the Dewey Decimal System revolutionized library catalogues, the city of Ebla invented a way for readers to easily access information.

So the next time you’re discussing famous lost libraries, instead of talking about the Library of Alexandria, consider sharing this story of Ebla, the first recorded global power that “wielded extraordinary influence and dominated trade among other Bronze Age Levantine kingdoms.”


For more

  • Interested in how Cuneiform was written? Check out this video!
  • Read Dr. Lydia Pyne’s “Bookshelf,” part of series Object Lessons, created in partnership with The Atlantic and Bloomsbury. Each piece explores the hidden lives of ordinary objects.