Collections of books accumulated and made accessible for public and private use.
Public libraries existed in the ancient civilizations of Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
After the introduction of Christianity each church became the nucleus of a library, as a collection of books was needed for church services.
Among the earliest accumulations was the library founded at Jerusalem principally by Bishop Alexander, c.260, which contained letters and historical documents.
More important was the library of Caesarea in Palestine collected by the martyr Pamiphilus (died 308), which contained a number of manuscripts used by Origen in Rome.
Pope Damasus (366-384) built a record office (archivum) in Rome which served as a depository of official documents, a library, and chancery, and was connected with the Basilica of Saint Lawrence.
Pope Agapetus (535-536) erected a building on the Caelian Hill, later known as the Library of Saint Gregory.
At the breakup of the civilization of the Roman Empire monasticism became the great influence which contributed more than anything to preserve in the West some remnants of learning of the classical period.
The Benedictine monks especially were the collectors, translators, and book-makers of the early Middle Ages.
Notable is the fact that liberal regulations were framed for rendering the books in the monastic collections accessible to the reading public.
The monastic libraries of England were outstanding.
Those of York, Croyland, Whitby, and Durham possessed good collections at an early date.
Among the famous libraries in Europe may be mentioned those of the monastic communities of Fulda, Corvey, and Saint Gall in Germany, Monte Cassino in Italy, and Fleury and Cluny in France.
With the revival of classical studies and secular literature, book-collecting became popular among rulers and private persons and there was a decline in the monastic learning in Europe.
In England the destruction of the monasteries during the Reformation resulted in the loss of many valuable collections.
Foremost among the agencies which have contributed to the collection and preservation of books in later times is the papacy.
Popes have founded numerous libraries and enriched them with manuscripts and documents.
They have also indirectly established libraries by founding universities.
Among the famous libraries are: the Vatican, Rome, founded by Pope Nicholas V, 1450; the Ambrosian, Milan, founded by Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, 1603-1609; the Angelica, Rome, founded by Angelo Rocca, O.S.A., 1614; the Casanatense, Rome, founded by Cardinal Girolamo Casanata, 1698; the Mazarin, Paris, founded by Cardinal Mazarin, 1643; the Mediceo-Laurenziana, Florence, founded by Clement VII, 1671, and the library of Louvain University, founded 1627, on a collection bequeathed to the university by Beyerlinck.
It was destroyed by the Germans, 1914, but has since been reconstructed.
New Catholic Dictionary