This Ivy League College Holds The World's Largest Academic Library

Alright, it's time to talk text. Way back before people assumed that you could compress meaningful explanations into Tweet-sized blurbs, people read these super long tweets called "books," and, uh ... oh, you know those? The truth is, judging by the numbers, plenty of people still love cozying up to a piece of fiction, non-fiction, paperback, hardback, whatever, and having some peace of mind. It's estimated that book sales will rise to $129 billion in the U.S. in 2023 alone (via Statista). Publishers' Weekly reports that unit sales rose from 757.9 million to 825.7 million from 2020 to 2021. That's individual books, mind you, an insane figure considering all the bugbear "death of publishing" rumors of yesteryear.

Globally, literacy is at an historical high. Back in 1800, only 12% of the global population could read, as Our World In Data shows. As of 2016, that number was 86.25%. Some countries like Finland, Ukraine, and Czechia for all intents and purposes have 100% literacy rates, per World Population Review. This doesn't mean that people in those countries or elsewhere are actually reading every day, but judging by the aforementioned publishing figures, it seems like folks still love books.

So how many books do you have in your personal library? If you have to pause and count them, then congratulations. But no matter how many you've got, you definitely have less than the Harvard University Library, which has a jaw-dropping 21.8 million titles (via Guinness World Records). 

The long path to literacy

To get a handle on how significant it is that one single library holds 21.8 million titles — 18.7 million physical, 3.1 million electronic — we need a refresher on the history of literacy. For most of human history, humans didn't write their languages down, let alone pen each word and make up stories for cash.

Written language first developed in Mesopotamia from 3400 to 3300 B.C., as the British Library says. But bear in mind: people didn't just spontaneously start inscribing each utterance onto paper. Before this, folks imprinted signs onto clay like signatures, or impressed various symbols related to accounting and record-keeping like, "Jack gave Jill 50 goats." This was incredibly helpful for keeping track of goings on in larger kingdoms, and acted as an external memory device to free up attention and labor. By 1300 B.C. we get our first "full script" in China, a word-for-word transcription of spoken language.

Literacy was fairly high during the Roman Empire, all things considered. About 10% of the population could read and write, but papyri (individual papyrus scrolls) took forever to reproduce because books had to be copied letter by letter (via the University of Michigan). Books circulated amongst friends, and the most popular volumes got replicated more often. It took all the way to A.D. 1440 and Johannes Gutenberg's printing press for books to become easily produced (via World History). And now? Google counted about 130 million books in existence in 2010 (via The Atlantic).

So many books, so little time

As Guinness World Records says, Harvard University Library was founded in 1638 way back before the modern literacy boom, only about 200 years after Gutenberg's printing press was invented. Clergyman John Harvard (note the last name) donated his personal collection of 400 books to the library, and its collection grew to 15,000. In 1764, a fire burned the whole thing down. While it wasn't as much of a loss as the fire at the Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C. (200,000 to 700,000 volumes gone forever, via Book Riot), the only books that survived were those out on loan.

Harvard University Library's collection was rebuilt through the 19th and 20th centuries, and many of its current volumes reside at 73 different satellite locations around Cambridge, Massachusetts. The main building is Widener Library on Harvard Yard at Harvard University's campus. At present, Harvard University Library is such a colossal, fundamental institution that it has its own website, a staff of 800 populating not only the Cambridge area, but 25 additional libraries across the world, offers tours to the public, houses exhibits, and extends fellowships to writers to work on-site.

Other impressive world libraries include the British Library, which contains between 170 and 200 million items, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which dates back to 1368 (via Book Riot), and the stunningly gorgeous Trinity College Dublin (pictured above), which has been featured in loads of movies (via IMDB).