What is the oldest book at the Library of Congress?

The answer depends on how loosely you will consider the term “book”. 

The oldest written material in the Library is a cuneiform tablet dating from 2040 B.C.

The Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division has a collection of Sumerian cuneiform tablets; the oldest date from the reign of Gudea of Lagash (2144-2124 B.C.). Other tablets appear to belong to the Ur III period (late 3rd to early 2nd millennium B.C.). 

Cuneiform tablets in the Library of Congress

One of the oldest examples of printing in the world – passages from a Buddhist sutra, or discourse, printed in 770 A.D. – is housed in the Library’s Asian Division. This form of printing was done by a stamping method which differs from movable type technology with which we may be more familiar.

Buddhist sutra in the Library of Congress

The true definition of ‘book’ is a codex– a front and back cover with pages glued or sewn together.  The earliest pieces in the Library of Congress in this format would still be a medieval manuscripts.  These are handwritten due to the fact that they predate the invention of the printing press in the West.  We have several medieval manuscripts, one of the oldest being Exposicio Mistica Super Exod which was has been dated to ca. 1150. Codex are often undated so, with what information we have now, we think that this is one of the oldest.

Exposicio Mistica Super Exod in the Library of Congress

If you are thinking of the more modern sense of the word ‘book,’ one with printing, then the Gutenberg Bible, completed in 1455, might be what you would consider our oldest book.  The Gutenberg Bible marks the first time that movable print was used in the West, and thus is often called the first book, again, in the modern sense of the word 'book'. 

The Library of Congress' copy is pictured and discussed here:

Gutenberg Bible in the Library of Congress

There is far more to know about this, and above is a very simple explanation, though I hope is serves your purposes. 

We hope that this is helpful; If not, please feel free to submit your question to begin a conversation with a Reference Librarian. 




Last Updated: Jun 24, 2020
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