The first libraries on our country's territory date back to the earliest state institutions, and in the 5th century A.D., in the Caucasian Albania there was introduced a 52-letter alphabet. As a result, numerous books were translated into Albanian, and small libraries were established in churches and schools. In the 7th century, following the Arab conquest, libraries were established in mosques and madrasahs. In the middle ages, there was palace, religious, scientific and personal libraries. Significant palace libraries included the Shirvanshakh Palace Library (12th century), the Tebriz Palace Library (16th century) and the Ag-goyunlu, Gara-goyunlu and Sefevi Palace Libraries (14-16th centuries). The most important was the Tebriz Palace Library, founded in the 16th century by the great statesman and military leader, Shakh Ismayil Khatai, who promulgated a state decree on libraries in 1522. The most important of the religious libraries was the library at the Sheikh Safi Observatory in Ardebil. The library at the Maraga Observatory (13th century) contained over 400,000 volumes and occupied a special place among scientific libraries. Nizami, Khatai, Bakhmanyar, Khatib Tabrizi, Abu Vafa, Gatran Tabrizi and others are mentioned as having personal libraries in the middle ages.
Public libraries of a new type and also many outstanding personal libraries were created in Azerbaijan from the forties of the 19th century. The libraries of Abbasgulu Aga Bakikhanov and Mirza Fatali Akhundov are examples. Public libraries and reading rooms, as we know them, appeared in the second half of the 19th century. Public libraries were opened in Shusha in 1859, Gandja in 1868, and Baku in 1887. In 1887, Baku had three libraries. In the late 19th century, the first technical libraries were opened in Baku, for workers in the petroleum industry. In 1905-1907, the country's intellectuals, seeking to foster national culture and fired with revolutionary idealism, set up charitable associations to promote publishing, and the opening of libraries and reading rooms. The Sabir Library and the Baku State University Library were founded under the Democratic Republic (1918-1920). In 1920, the country had 965 school libraries. Baku and its outlying districts had about 50 libraries, and there were over 100 district and village libraries in other parts of the country.
In spite of all the problems, serious efforts were directed towards culture, and particularly libraries, in the early years of Soviet rule. The Library Fund and Books Office, which played a major part in developing libraries, were founded between 1920 and 1925. From 1926 on, libraries were funded from the state budget. The Republic had 108 public libraries, with a total stock of 905,100 volumes. A general survey of libraries in the USSR was carried out in October 1934, and 2,037 libraries were recorded in Azerbaijan. University training for librarians became available in 1947, when the Language Faculty at Baku State University introduced a course in librarianship. A significant increase in library funding between 1950 and 1955 helped libraries to improve their stocks and facilities. Stocks, in particular, were substantially replenished. In 1950, there were 2,290 libraries, with a total stock of 4,230,100 volumes. In 1955, the figures had risen to 2,394 and 9,614,200 respectively. In 1958, they stood at 5,776 and over 20,000,000. Of the libraries, 2,583 were public libraries. The Akhundov State Library played an important role at this time, contributing hugely to methodology and to research on library and bibliographical science.
In the seventies, the centralized library system of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism was created, and this process continued and was taken further in the eighties. Centralization of the libraries controlled by the Academy of Sciences was another important development. Many serious problems were solved in the seventies and eighties. The improvements included: centralization and regular up-grading of the public libraries network; significant expansion of the libraries' role, with a new emphasis on information functions; a radically improved approach to the building of library stocks; intensified research on library and bibliographical science; and linking of the activities of different types of library. By the end of the eighties, the country had 9,548 libraries, with a total stock of more than 114 millions volumes. The social, political and economic changes which occurred during this period forced libraries to operate in wholly new conditions.
Azerbaijan regained its independence at the end of 1991. The change brought huge opportunities for serious reform - not just in the political and economic spheres, but also in those of culture, education and ideology. The new economic conditions created an increased demand for information, and the number of library users rose accordingly - by 17% between 1997 and 1999. Gradually, libraries outside the capital evolved into cultural centers, and came to play a significant role in providing the public with information. Keeping libraries supplied with new books remained, however, the chief problem. State funding for libraries was minimal. All of this created a clear and pressing need for government action to promote basic changes in the library system. In 1999, the Milli Mejlis adopted the Libraries Act. This law - a milestone in the cultural life of the country - laid the foundations of state policy on libraries, and confirmed that organizing and managing libraries was a vital state function. It has an essential bearing on the development and funding of libraries, and on the protection of book stocks in the new state of the economy and community. Its stipulation that state funding for the completion of library stocks is to increase regularly is particularly significant. Equally important is its introduction of a statutory deposit system, entitling the central library fund to one free copy of every collective or individual publication produced in the country by state or private printing houses. This is vital to the building-up of publications archives. However, funding for libraries from the state budget has so far been limited. In the eighties, 30-40% of the funds earmarked for culture went to libraries. From the mid-nineties on, this figure declined to 12-13%. It now stands at 15-18%. Library staff is among the lowest-paid workers. Owing to the very small sums allocated for acquisitions and the high price of books, most libraries have not up-dated their stocks. The National Library does not receive enough copies of new publications because of the assignment of small sums for purchase of new literature and high cost of new books. Weakness of material-technical base and staff shortages due to low wages are causing serious problems in library organization.
Despite all difficulties, libraries are developing. New approaches are being tried, and new services offered. The Akhundov Library is already connected to Internet, allowing readers to search for information and consult material from the stocks and catalogues of the world's leading libraries. With backing from the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, information centres are being set up in seven central libraries - in Baku, Ali Bayramli, Gandja, Barda, Lenkaran, Shamakhi and Guba - all of which will be connected to Internet. On the whole, Azerbaijan has an extensive network of libraries, which are playing a significant role in implementing social and economic change in outlying areas (this includes reform in the spheres of land-use, education and property). They are as following:
library network of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism
library network of the Ministry of Education
library network of the Confederation of Trade Unions
library network of the Ministry of Health
They help to raise the general educational level, train their staff, and promote democracy, civil society and the rule of law.