The history of libraries in the medieval and early modern periods is a history of shifting collections of books of varied size and function, which differ in significant ways from modern expectations of a library.
The most obvious difference is physical. From the early middle ages until the sixteenth century, the books owned by religious and academic communities as well as those of individuals did not comprise a single physically discrete collection within a designated room, but were housed in chests and cupboards in various locations. The earliest specially designated book-rooms, datable to the twelfth century, were places of storage; library rooms in which books were arranged for consultation in situ were introduced in England only from the fourteenth century, and in many instances contained only a part of an institution’s holdings.
The modern conception of a library as an organised and comprehensive repository of written knowledge became fully articulated only during the seventeenth century. Indeed, for much of the period covered by this volume, the concept of a library remained ill-defined. Collections of books were assembled in the first instance to serve particular needs. In the early middle ages, these were almost exclusively ecclesiastical: the requirements of the monastic life, the performance of the liturgy, and the delivery of pastoral care. From the thirteenth century, new kinds of need emerged: those of scholars and of mendicant preachers and teachers, and, and by the fifteenth century, of members of the emergent professions, such as doctors and lawyers.