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History of Libraries in the CR

Libraries in the Czech Republic have a rich history. Their beginnings date as far back as the 9th century when collections of Old Slavonic books from Great Moravia came into being. Since the 10th century, there have been collections in the Prague Bishopric comprising of religious books - Psalters, hymn books, Bibles, prayer books, and later on also chronicles and legends about the lives of saints. Similar collections of books existed since the 11th century at the oldest monasteries established at that time mainly by the Benedictines. Very precious illuminated ma-nuscripts appeared also at the court of the Czech princes at the time, often representing a part of the royal treasures. One example of this is the King Vratislav II Coronation Book of Gospels, known also as the Vyssegradensis Codex dating from 1086. The monastery libraries of the late Middle Ages contained primarily documents of a religious character made at scriptoria or scribes' workshops. At the same time, however, the first books on secular motives emerged and the first secular libraries were established. Municipal scriptoria started "producing" the first ledgers, property books, debtor books, and law books.

With the founding of the Charles University in Prague in 1348, the counrty's first university library was established, bringing about a real breakthrough in the development of libraries. In addition to religious books, it also began to collect books from the most varied areas of knowledge - law, medicine, astronomy, natural science, geography, chronicles, etc.

From the 16th century onwards, there was also a more systematic establishment of library collections at castles. The aristocrats' libraries were predominantly secular, being concerned with travel, only later on, especially in the 17th century, was there an increase in books on the natural sciences, law, politics, and astrology.

The development of libraries in the Czech Lands after the invention of the printing press was fundamentally affected by the Hussite wars, and later on especially the Thirty Years' War. Even the Royal Library at the Prague Castle began to stagnate. Subsequent progress was linked to the development of private libraries (especially those which belonged to the nobility, and later those of the leading figures of culture and the intelligentsia), the development of public libraries (society, municipality, and local libraries), and semi-public libraries (school and pa-rish libraries, lending libraries, and reading rooms).

In response to the entrepreneurial activities of the nobility in agriculture and industry, the aristocratic collections developed into special libraries containing literature on agriculture, law, and trade. From the 17th and particularly the18th century, influenced by the enlightenment, there was a growth of natural science collections. In some cases, even lists of books were emerging, and the administration of collections was entrusted to authorised professionals - librarians.

From the end of the 18th century on, public reading rooms began to appear in the Czech Lands; in the first half of the 19th century, municipal public libraries were being founded by local reading societies. Owing to the increasing number of printed books and to the growth of public literacy, books became a cultural necessity for a significant portion of the population. The increase in the number of public libraries in towns and smaller municipalities was proof of the development of reading culture in the Czech Lands.

By the end of the 19th century, no society would be without its own larger or smaller library, usually housed at its own premises. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the first libraries appeared also at the offices of state administration and local government with stock of juridical, administrative, and financial literature.

The collections of large specialized and scientific libraries also expanded rapidly, some of them already subsidized by the state administration or local government (University Library, National Museum Library, etc.). With the development of large public and specialized libraries, their administration and activities became increasingly highly specialized. The foundations of librarianship were being laid: the first manuals and textbooks on librarianship appeared and the first courses in librarianship were organized.
With the establishment of the independent Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, there was a further great upsurge of public libraries. In 1919 the Czechoslovak parliament passed its first library act, according to which each municipality was obliged to establish and operate a public library. The development of new branches of science and institutions saw an increase in the number of special and scientific libraries: numerous technical, commercial, juridical, medical, agricultural, and statistical libraries were established.

The new big Parliament Library was established in Prague; librarianship became an official field of study. The scientific subject of "bibliology" was established and librarianship became a study subject at universities. Czech public libraries were destroyed to a considerable extent during the Nazi 1939-1945 occupation of the Czech Lands. Books on anti-fascist, democratic, and progressive themes were removed from libraries. After the liberation of the country in 1945, public libraries began to develop once again. The Library Act of 1919 was re-introduced, allowing public libraries to replace as many discarded books as possible as well as buying new titles. The international inter-library loan service was developed. Secondary schools of librarianship were established and librarianship became an independent field of study at universities.

In 1959 a new Library Act was passed creating a unified library system. Pursuant to this Act, public administration became responsible for providing financial, material, and personnel support, but this of course was in keeping with the State's Communist ideology. Strict censorship, especially after 1970, led to the discarding of thousands of books whose authors were deemed to be incompatible with the regime. These books were collected and placed in so called special collections of selected scientific libraries. Further down-grading took place with significant restrictions on imports of foreign literature.

After the political and social changes of November 1989, Czech librarianship began to develop on a new democratic basis. Books previously withdrawn because of censorship were returned to library shelves; prohibited books were published in large numbers and found their way into library collections. Library services were extended so as to provide the public with open access to cultural values and information sources. The essential automation of library processes was accelerated.

The development of libraries in the Czech Lands has always been an important indicator of the cultural level of the population. It is evident that libraries have always been a part of the nation's cultural life. The degree of their development shows the level of importance that societies during the various historical periods attributed (and continue to attribute) to culture and especially to libraries as its substantial part.

Nov 09, 2014