L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

We asked some of our favorite libraries: What’s the oldest item in your collection?

Atlas Obscura |Sarah Laskow

The oldest reading room at the Bodleian Library, in Oxford. David Iliff/CC-BY-SA 3.0.

When you start to think about the oldest books that a library might hold, there are any number of rabbit holes you can fall down. What’s the oldest book in any particular city? What’s the oldest book in the world? Well, what do you mean by “book”? The oldest written text? The oldest manuscript? The oldest printed material? The oldest bound book?

Librarians take these kinds of questions very seriously, so when Atlas Obscura contacted some of our favorite libraries to ask about the oldest books in their collections, we were treated to a wealth of information about the treasures they hold.

The New York Public Library, for instance, has not only cuneiform tablets and ninth-century gospels, but also a Gutenberg Bible and a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, one of the oldest books printed in America. In addition to its own cuneiform tablets and Gutenberg Bible, the Library of Congress holds one of the oldest examples of printing in the world, passages from a Buddhist sutra, printed in A.D. 770, as well as a medieval manuscript from 1150, delightfully titled Exposicio Mistica Super Exod.

In the history of writing, bound books as we know them today arrive fairly late, so there are no actual “books” on this list. Instead, this is a wondrous collection of illuminated manuscripts, papyrus scrolls, and clay tablets. Some of these items you can even see in person, if you pay a visit.

Check out the oldest items in the collection HERE

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