Archaeologists have identified Germany’s oldest public library, which may also be the oldest library in the Roman Empire’s northwest provinces. Niches in the walls appear to have stored up to 20,000 scrolls.
The library’s remains were unearthed in the middle of Cologne. The Romans founded the city in 50 A.D. back when Germany was a Roman province called “Germania.” Researchers think the library dates to the middle of the second century, around the same time Romans built the Ephesus library in 117 A.D. (Ephesus is located in modern-day Turkey).
The ancient library’s walls emerged during construction for a community center (in Europe, discovering relics during construction is very common). At first, researchers thought the building—which archaeologists estimate was 65 feet long and 30 feet high—might be a community hall. But they weren’t sure what all the little nooks in the walls were for.
“It took us some time to match up the parallels—we could see the niches were too small to bear statues inside. But what they are are kind of cupboards for the scrolls,” says Dirk Schmitz from the Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne, according to The Guardian. “They are very particular to libraries—you can see the same ones in the library at Ephesus.”
It’s difficult to determine literacy rates in ancient times, let alone how many people would’ve made use of Cologne’s library. And in fact, the idea that the Roman Empire had “public” libraries at all is a little controversial. T. Keith Dix, a classics professor at the University of Georgia, has suggested Roman state libraries may have been for well-connected authors in the empire.
“[A]uthors in the Roman world, almost by definition, were members of the upper classes,” he wrote in a 1994 issue of the journal Libraries & Culture. “Those authors who praise ‘public access’ to books most likely had in mind a ‘public’ made up of others like themselves. Given the high level of illiteracy in the ancient world, they had no reason to imagine great hordes of readers scurrying to the libraries.”
The library’s discovery has not stopped the construction of the community center, which is affiliated with a local church, but it has changed part of the project’s design. Now, where two parking spaces would have been, The Washington Postreports there’ll be a glass window in the ground that visitors can look through to see the library’s remains.