Information services have a long and important history of providing the means by which societies have preserved records of knowledge and culture. Ever since humans learned to write, libraries have been essential to preserving the history of civilization. Since ancient times, libraries have been centers where people could learn, read, and have access to information. No one really knows when the first library was established, but there are many remains of important libraries that existed in very early times. There are records of libraries in ancient Egypt as old as the pyramids, for example, and a large library existed at Nineveh in Assyria as early as 600 B.C. In these ancient repositories, scholars studied manuscripts in Greek, Ethiopian, Persian, Hebrew, and Hindi. In Rome, private libraries were common among educated citizens.
During the Middle Ages, when knowledge of Greek and Latin classics was threatened, precious manuscripts were preserved in monastery libraries. Later, Renaissance humanists and collectors, such as Petrarch and Boccaccio, preserved many important works of literature and philosophy in their personal libraries. Many of these libraries, together with book collections gathered by kings and noblemen, were the beginnings of some of the great scholarly libraries that still exist in Europe.
Before the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1440s, manuscripts were written by hand. The movable type press allowed for books to be printed more efficiently and inexpensively, thus providing a larger circulation of books.
All early libraries were intended for the use of small, elite groups. Few people had received enough education to be able to read well, and most people were too poor to have the leisure time to enjoy books. The Industrial Revolution and other social changes in the 18th and 19th centuries upset the old social order, and new generations of working people were able to acquire an education. Their desires called for a new kind of library, one that not only would preserve the best works of earlier times but also would be an educational facility for the common people.
Associations of young mercantile workers, apprentices, mechanics, and clerks formed libraries. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin and a group of his friends organized the Library Company of Philadelphia, the earliest library of this kind in the American colonies.
Public libraries, supported from public funds and open to all readers, were established in Manchester, England, in 1852 and in Boston in 1854. Additional public libraries soon were started in many other cities in both countries. By 1876, there were 342 public libraries in the United States; by 1920, the number had grown to more than 6,500, with locations in every state in the union. Today, there are more than 120,096 libraries in the United States.
In the 1950s, the development of new technologies stimulated the emergence of the field of information science. This new field brought together elements from library science, computer science, business administration, and other fields to create new and more efficient ways of storing, organizing, and disseminating recorded knowledge. Information science focused on the combination of modern technologies with human resources to bring about the transformation of information services from a field focusing on print materials to one including all forms of media, including print materials, audiovisual materials, and electronic media.
During the last 40 years, the field of information science has evolved tremendously, yet it remains closely connected to the field of library science. Today information services professionals, in libraries and in many different settings, employ vast technologies to organize, classify, and retrieve records of culture and thought. In addition to traditional books and periodicals, information is now available through audio and video recordings, visual aids such as microfilm and filmstrips, CD-ROMs, digital video discs (DVDs), online database searching services such as DIALOG and LEXIS/NEXIS, remote sources accessed through the Internet, e-books, and other electronic publications.
In today's information society, libraries remain a key part of the information services industry and will continue to play an increasingly important role. Libraries, and the information professionals they employ, are needed to help people find their way through puzzling and often contradictory information in a world in which the amount of information and technology continues to increase and expand at a dizzying pace.