Welcome to the Library of King Ashurbanipal Web Page

Welcome to the Library of King Ashurbanipal Web Page

King Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-627 B.C.) was the ruler of ancient Assyria at the height of Assyrian military and cultural accomplishments. He is known in Greek writings as Sardanapalus and as Asnappeer or Osnapper in the Bible. Through military conquests Ashurbanipal also expanded Assyrian territory and its number of vassal states. However, of far greater importance to posterity was Ashurbanipal's establishment of a great library in the city of Nineveh. The military and territorial gains made by this ruler barely outlived him but the Library he established has survived partially intact. A collection of 20,000 to 30,000 cuneiform tablets containing approximately 1,200 distinct texts remains for scholars to study today. Ashurbanipal's library was not the first library of its kind but it was one of the largest and one of the ones to survive to the present day. Most of it is now in the possession of the British Museum or the Iraq Department of Antiquities.

The importance of Ashurbanipal's Library can not be overstated. It was buried by invaders centuries before the famous library at Alexandria was established and gives modern historians much information about the peoples of the Ancient Near East. The ancient Sumerian "Epic of Gilgamesh" and a nearly complete list of ancient Near Eastern rulers among other priceless writings were preserved in Ashurbanipal's palace library at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal's accomplishments are also of great importance to scholars of library history. As a scholar Ashurbanipal reached greatnesss. Though this library was not the first of its kind, it was one of the largest and the first library modern scholars can document as having most or even all of the attributes one expects to find in a modern library. Like a modern library this collection was spread out into many rooms according to subject matter. Some rooms were devoted to history and government, others to religion and magic and still others to geography, science, poetry, etc. Ashurbanipal's collection even held what could be called classified government materials. The findings of spies and secret affairs of state were held secure from access in deep recesses of the palace much like a modern government archive. Each group of tablets contained a brief citation to identify the contents and each room contained a tablet near the door to classify the general contents of each room in Ashurbanipal's library. The actual cataloging activities under Ashurbanipal's direction would not be seen in Europe for centuries. Partially through military conquests and partially through the employment of numerous scribes there was significant effort placed into what modern librarians would call collection development.

Thus, centuries before the library at Alexandria, a library with many of the characteristics of a modern institution was in existence. Scholars of library history would be well served by further study of Ashurbanipal and his palace library. Further information on Ashurbanipal and his military and literary accomplishments may be found at the Assyria Web Page. Information about the ancient city of Nineveh can be found at the Nineveh page. To see some pictures of surviving objects from the era students might stop at The Assyrians Web Page. A good chronology to place the history of Assyria into context can be found at this chronology page. A good brief sketch of the importance of Ashurbanipal can be found at this personal Web Page..

The following is a list of references used in the creation of this page:

Jastrow, Morris. The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria. London: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1915.

Johnson, Elmer D. History of Libraries in the Western World. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1970.

Olmstead, A. T. The History of Assyria. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923.

Wiegand, Wayne A. and Donald G. Davis, Jr. eds. Encyclopedia of Library History. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994.

The picture at the top showing Ashurbanipal working hard to rebuild a temple in Babylonia was provided by numerous scribes and quarry slaves whose names we lost in the last 2,500 years and the Images from the history of world art and archaeology for use in the classroom page.

giles@utkux.utcc.utk.edu