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Basic Information

A library is a collection of books and other sources of information.

The work may refer to the collection itself and/or to the room or building in which it is housed. A library which contains only records may be properly referred to as an archive instead.

Unsurprisingly the library tends to be the product of a substantial, urbanised, literate culture - where any of those factors are lacking, books tend to be rare; the 'libraries' of medieval Europe, even those of the great universities, tended to be measured in the dozens of volumes because medieval Europe was predominately agricultural and illiterate. Likewise the 'libraries' of ancient Mesopotania turn out to be little more than archives of accounts and records - the civilisations of that time tended to be populous and urban, but not particularly literate.

The contents of a library will depend on the culture producing it - who has access to publishing technology and who their customers are, as well as what the culture considers significant and suitable to preserve. In some cultures this will be their creation myths and other religious and philosophical works - for others those belong to the oral tradition and books are for practical subjects: encyclopediae, treatieses on medicine and natural philosopy or instructive works of history. Where there is a wide and free market in the written word trivial things like plays, poetry and even fiction will be produced. A library may contain any or all of these, depending on who collates it - a private collection, made up from all of the books the owner has bought or been given could contain almost anything (especially once it has been inherited a couple of times) but the library of a temple or university might be more circumspect.

The technology of writing in a culture will also leave its mark on libraries - the Greco-Roman world published plentifully as it had access to huge supplies of papyrus paper, as did the Han Chinese with their mulberry paper. Medieval Europe was limited to the use of parchment - actually thin leather - which was costly to produce and set publishing back a long way until the invention of rag paper and later wood-pulp paper in the 1400s. The printing press eventually makes the written word common - producing copy is almost trivial by comparison to hand scribing - and can help make libraries even bigger, although possibly at the cost of significance: something no longer has to be important - or even good - to be published.

The librarians who run the library will generally have a full time job of it - but unlike the staff of a modern lending library, their job will not normally be lending out the books; access to historical libraries tended to be quite strictly controlled and books were often not allowed off the premises. Historical librarians were often occupied performing maintenance on the collection - rebinding aging works, patching the damage caused by book worm, museum beetle and reader alike and all too often, reproducing works that were too frail to preserve in the original. They will also tend to be fanatical about fire prevention for obvious reasons.

The nature of the libraries in your campaign should therefore depend a lot on the culture that produces them - the cliched fantasy library is anachronistic in the standard medieval fantasy setting and the modern 'gag book' ("1001 Uses for a Dead Hobbit" anyone?) even more of an abomination. The long aisles of leather bound books are a product of the late Renaissance and Early Modern periods and should be treated as such since previously the infrastructure to produce them simply did not exist. In a Chinese or Greco-Roman style world a library could well be larger, but would probably be composed of scrolls stored in honeycomb like shelves on the wall. Both should probably be limited to serious works of non-fiction - although the scroll readers might well have the luxury of poetry and theatre as well.

As previously noted, access to a library is likely to be strictly controlled in the pre-modern period - not least for the protection of the books. Unrestricted access to a collection will probably require significant rank in whatever organisation controlls it - or the friendship of a private collector. Some works - particularly those regarded as obscene, blasphemous or subversive - are likely to be further controlled. Bribery may work but access may be easier for those that can provide the collection with books that it lacks.

A library is also a really good place to hide a book - particularly in a region that is rarely re-shelved.

The future of the library is probably some kind of database … Project Gutenburg is already a long way towards archving many out of print works for universal access.

See Also


1. Red-Hot and Filthy Library Smut - collection of images from large or old libraries. (It's not what you're thinking; it's really pictures of libraries!)
3. novel: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco — a medieval library housed in a monastary plays an important role in the story

Library Maps (External Links)

Game and Story Use

  • In most investigative campaigns, libraries will feature prominently - the PCs always need to find a Tome of Eldritch Lore or similar piece of information in one.
    • Finding it might be difficult, though - the library might be badly organized, or the wanted item is only found in a special collection which requires special permission to get to - or the enemies of the PCs might get to the same library at the same time, in which case a fight might break out.
  • Modern players might not recognise treasure in the form of a heap of elderly books but the right sort of character should probably be reminded that not only might these works be worth a lot of money, they might buy the party access to a collection that was previously off limits to them.
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