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From caravans to "e-readers"

The most ancient libraries were an expensive pleasure, and ordinary mortals, those who were considered ordinary at the time, and even high-ranking officials, could not afford such a luxury. These libraries only belonged to tsars and were even a kind of emblem of wealth and power. 

The Persian kings were famous above all others for their libraries. King Darius III himself (who undoubtedly fought against Alexander the Great), always took his own personal library with him, when setting out on a campaign, loaded onto 50 camels. These were moreover only the most necessary books.

At that time, in the 6th century BC, libraries occupied several halls, and even whole buildings. It is sufficient to recall the famous Ancient Library of Alexandria. How did this come about? The fact is that at that time books were written on papyri, on parchment and even on clay tablets, which were heavy and weighed tens of kilograms.

It was not until the early Middle Ages that lighter and less expensive materials appeared, but books continued to remain a luxury.

To be a calligrapher, a person who could write swiftly and beautifully, was a particularly important and elite profession in mediaeval times in Azerbaijan too, especially on the territory of the Seljuk state. A single calligrapher could write out 50 pages of text in a day. The calligrapher was moreover an artist. In actual fact, that was one and the same profession. The artist richly illustrated the text with the relevant pictures, and also recorded state documents as well as verses, poems, and the histories of the kings' lives.

Shah Ismail Khata'i [1487-1524] was an excellent calligrapher. This ruler of a state was both a fine swordsman and a master of poetry and the art of calligraphy. He was the first of the rulers of the empire to sign a decree on setting up libraries. It was precisely the promotion of calligraphy that made books more accessible.

Science from the East

In those times, the East was the centre of civilisation. Numerous scholars had their own libraries, and the sultans and shahs considered it their duty to encourage people to become educated, creating whole libraries for them. When speaking about the Middle Ages, we should not forget to mention the library of Bahmanyar (Abdulhasan Bahmanyar ibn Marzuban Ajami Adarbayijani [993-1066]). This man was one of the most outstanding scholars of his time, a pupil of Avicenna.

The library of Bahmanyar which was situated in Southern Azerbaijan, was one of the major libraries of its time. An important feature of it was that it was open to all scholarly people who wished to use it. To put it in today's language, Bahmanyar's greatest merit was to popularise science. He translated many works by other scholars and had a splendid knowledge of the Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Greek and Latin languages. Numerous scholars subsequently spoke about Bahmanyar with gratitude as a person who had made the knowledge of many centuries available and did in fact set up one of the first public libraries in the whole of the East.

The 10th-12th centuries was the peak of scholarly thinking in the East. Avicenna and [the Seljuk satirical Sufi] Nasreddin [1201-1274] were active at that time. Treatises on music and mathematics, astronomy and medicine were being written. The libraries were playing an extremely important part in this, gradually becoming more and more universally accessible, even though this was still a rare phenomenon. At that time, in Catho-lic Europe ancient knowledge was kept under lock and key, science was on the brink of being forbidden and the slightest dissident though was recognised as heresy. Processes were taking place in reverse there - the works [of the Greek philosopher and scientist] Aristotle and [the Greek physician] Hippocrates, [the Greek philosopher and mathematician] Plato and [the Greek writer of tragedies] Euripides were being translated without taking religion and people's views into account.

In the second half of the 11th century, the philosopher Khatib Tabrizi was putting together one of the world's major libraries in his home town of Tabriz. He also translated many things, approaching his work in an extremely conscientious manner. Thus, when translating the literary work of Abdul-Ula Muerri from Arabic into Turkish, he set off for Bagdad in order to check the details, meet the author and complete the translation together with him.

The above-mentioned Nasreddin was also noted for his involvement in promoting libraries and his amazing story needs to be told separately. The fact is that he was the owner of what was an enormous library for those times which was located at the legendary Alamut castle. The notorious Old Man of the Mountains (Hasan-i Sabbah [al-Hassan-ibn al-Sabbah]) lived there, who had set up the well-known and mysterious Order of the Assassins which spread terror throughout Europe and Asia. The Old Man, who gathered together objects of material and cultural value from the whole world, incarcerated Nasreddin in the fortress where he put a very large number of valuable books at the disposal of the scholar.

Numerous libraries existed in the late Middle Ages. It was that same Shah Ismail Khatai who launched an extensive library campaign. After signing a decree on libraries in 1522, he obliged the khans to collect all the scientific scholarly works and to allow free access to them. The libraries in [the Iranian cities of] Tabriz, Ardabil, Maraga and Samaxa were well known in the 16th century. The library in the palace of Tabriz was set up by Ismail Khatai himself. 

In the new empire

Once book printing started, libraries and book production became more widespread. In the East for a long time, books written and copied by hand were regarded as truly valuable. It was not until the 19th century that many private libraries belonging to entrepreneurs appeared. By the end of the century large numbers of completely public libraries had come into being that were freely accessible to everyone who wished to use them. As a rule, they belonged to public organisations. In Baku, for example, the "Nicat" Muslim Educational Society Library was functioning on Nikolayevskaya Street with its free reading room. They charged 30 kopecks for borrowing a book for a month. (with a deposit of one rouble).

The Baku Public Assembly Library, which was located on Krasnovodskaya Street was regarded as a good one. It was also completely free, but only members of the Assembly could borrow the books.

It was not until 1896 that the first official public library appeared in Baku. It was set up by [the Azerbaijani writer and statesman] Nariman Narimanov himself and [the Azerbaijani industrial magnate and philanthropist] Haci Zeynalabdin Tagiyev, who founded Azerbaijani journalism and the professional theatre together. Throughout the previous year the Tagiyev Theatre gave performances to collect 325 roubles to purchase books for the public library, the premises for which were provided by Narimanov on Millionaya Street.

The real and rapid flourishing of library networks in Azerbaijan came in the first Soviet years, as may well be conjectured.

Numerous libraries were opened within the framework of the "campaign against illiteracy" in Baku and other towns and cities. So-called "mobile libraries" appeared as well, which travelled around the small towns and mountain villages and actively promoted literacy and an enthusiasm for gaining knowledge. Those working in these libraries were workers commandeered from factories. Owing to the overall illiteracy (in tsarist Russia only 20 per cent of the population had elementary education) there were simply no other staff. It was precisely at that time, in the 1920s and 1930s that all the major libraries opened - the Mirza Fatali Axundov National Library of Azerbaijan, the F. Kocarli Republican Children's Library and others.

Libraries today

A large number of libraries are operating in Azerbaijan today, such as public libraries and libraries at institutes and state establishments. In the years of independence the Library of the Directorate for Affairs of the Azerbaijani President, the Republican Scientific Agricultural Library, the Scientific and Technical Library of the State Committee for Science and Technology and a number of others have come into existence. Nevertheless, the public libraries are no longer being used as much as they were previously.

Writers and publishers unanimously believe that hard- and paper-back books are less popular than before. On the one hand, social networking has become a mass world-wide phenomenon, and alas we are reading their content much more than books. On the other hand, large screen telephones and "eReaders" (kindles) have appeared which can contain whole libraries. In this sense, history is repeating itself, entering a new spiral in the coil, as private libraries are replacing public ones, and paper books are again becoming the property of a select few and a luxury.

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