What's in a Word | All Blogs

Bark, books and treasure troves

By Debra Dobbins

Along with getting exercise, I enjoy my walks around a nearby park for many pleasant scenes: children playing, kites flying, families picnicking, friends chatting, weekend warriors playing volleyball, musicians performing al fresco concerts and, sometimes, someone immersed in a book while under a shade tree.

I'll now better appreciate the sight of such a reader, since today I discovered that “library” harks back to describing the bark of a tree, according to Webster's. The Latin word liber meant “a book, orig. inner bark or rind of a tree (which was written on).”

That made sense. We know, after all, that the ancients wrote on cave walls, shards of pottery and, when life got really plush, papyrus, so I can see that tree bark would also come in handy.

Writing was cumbersome, yet people throughout the ages in various parts of the world still felt compelled to write information down and preserve it for others in libraries.

In China, for instance, libraries came into being during the Shang dynasty, according to Wikipedia, which ran from the sixteenth to eleventh centuries B.C. The Royal Library in Alexandria, Egypt, was constructed in 283 B.C. “With collections of works, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens, the library was part of a larger research institution called the Museum of Alexandria, where many of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world studied,” also according to Wikipedia.

From such ancient endeavors, of course, have come our modern libraries, treasure troves of both information and equality. These days it's not tough or expensive to obtain a library card.

A library feels almost like a church to me. Once inside, I like its quietness and orderliness, the smell of books and the sight of people enriching themselves through knowledge. I quite agree with writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

I like finding an intriguing book and knowing I get to read it at no charge — well, as long as it's returned on time. But that small mandate is just part of the order of a library, and I'm happy to comply. This spring or summer I plan to head to the library, find just the right book and then find just the right shade tree.

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Coven, 19th century
(Artistic rendering, based on archeological evidence)
Rendering and caption courtesy of Wikipedia


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