But many of the libraries that the now independent states of Central Asia inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union have -- over the past 12 years -- fallen victim to neglect, theft, and inadequate funding.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL in Tashkent, Uzbek political scientist Rustam Djumayev says there has been a decline in the professional qualifications of library staff over the past decade, especially in the provinces. He said this may be one of the reasons why rare books are being stolen and offered for sale.
In some cases, desperate thieves are motivated by a desire to raise money to feed their families. But other thefts are part of a more sophisticated criminal operation to steal rare books and offer them for sale to wealthy collectors.
Itar-Tass reported earlier this month that Kyrgyz and Russian intelligence officials cooperated to arrest a criminal group that had stolen some 40 rare volumes from libraries in Kyrgyzstan and taken them to Moscow for resale. Some of the volumes bore the autograph of Russian Czar Nicholas II and were worth an estimated $1,000 each.
Chinara Asenova, who heads the information service for the Kyrgyz National Security Service, says the books in question were published between 1802 and 1910 and bore stamps marking them as state property.
In an interview with RFE/RL, a member of the staff at the Kyrgyz National Library in Bishkek -- who wished to remain anonymous -- denied any books had been stolen. She acknowledged, however, that security needs to be tightened to prevent future thefts, and admitted the National Library does not have the funds to do so.
"These books were not stolen from our library. There is not a signature [special code] of our library in the [stolen] books. Maybe it happened in the 1930s or '40s. We don't have a stolen [book] now. This is a time of book shortages. Our aim is to strengthen the guards, but we don't have enough money for that," she said.
Sultan Rayev, Kyrgyzstan's deputy minister of education and culture, says his ministry plans to take action to prevent further thefts.
"There are some facts about lost rare books [in the country]. This is a huge loss for our spiritual culture. That is why we, in the Ministry of Culture, are trying to protect and restore rare books. This won't happen again in the future. We are strictly controlling the state libraries [on the protection of rare books]," Rayev says.
Baktygul Myrayeva, director of the Osh regional library in southern Kyrgyzstan, blames thefts on lax lending policies, inadequate security, and a failure to catalog library holdings to identify the most valuable books.
"I think that strict control of the rare books should be maintained. This has been a mistake by our librarians because these books have to be under special control. They should not be given out. If you give them out, the books would be given from one hand to another and, eventually, they would be lost. The rare books have to be kept in a special room with special conditions," Myrayeva says.
Some stolen volumes are offered for sale abroad. A representative of Harrassowitz Verlag, a respected German firm that deals in books on Turkic peoples, confirmed to RFE/RL that the company has received inquiries from rare booksellers in the former Soviet Union. The spokesman says such offers are automatically refused.
Rare books are not only lost through theft. Many libraries in Central Asia occupy buildings that are dilapidated and vulnerable to fire and flooding. The basement of the library of Tajikistan's Medical University was inundated during the recent floods in Dushanbe. Local authorities were unable to provide pumps to remove the water, so students and library staff salvaged books one by one.
Librarian Salomat Khayrulleoyeva told RFE/RL it is still too early to say how many books were lost. She said the library is hoping an international sponsor will help replace any damaged volumes.
The disappearance of old books is not the only problem being faced by Central Asian libraries. Many smaller libraries are prevented by financial constraints from acquiring new books.
Djumayev told RFE/RL that since its independence, Uzbekistan has acquired many volumes on subjects that during the Soviet era had been considered taboo, such as political science, management, and sociology. But most new acquisitions are confined to the Alisher Navoi State Library, the largest library in Tashkent.
The Navoi library houses almost 5 million volumes, including a collection of manuscripts and rare books, some of them dating to before the October 1917 Revolution. A new building is currently under construction.
Kazakhstan has adopted its own approach to libraries. Smaller libraries are being closed and their holdings transferred to larger libraries in the biggest city in each of the country's 14 oblasts. The surviving libraries are reportedly benefitting from an increase in funding, possibly from the country's oil revenues.
Tursyn Zhurtbay, director of the Otyrar Research Library at the Eurasian University in Astana, says Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov has pledged support for building a new library in the capital, modeled on the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt.
"The main idea of the creation of such a library was to collect all the ancient materials concerning the history of Kazakhs from all over the world in one place. I mean books, research papers, and other materials. Our task was to scientifically sort out all the gathered materials, to research them. The second task was to gather also all the materials available within our country," Zhurtbay says.
Zhurtbay notes that among the 5,000 rare books and manuscripts housed in his library are valuable copies of documents written in the ancient Uighur script in the 9th century. He says the originals had been preserved in Afghanistan but were reportedly destroyed during fighting.
Kazakhstan's National Library was founded in 1936 and contains some 5.5 million volumes, including some rare books and manuscripts dating to the 12th century, as well as early recordings of Kazakh national music. The library hopes the government will recognize the need to preserve historic documentation as part of state policy.
In contrast to the National Library, the library at the Presidential Cultural Center in Astana has identified the most valuable among its holding of some 700,000 volumes. Access to them is strictly limited.
"This library is the biggest part of the Presidential Cultural Center. We have inherited all the books of the old Saken Seyfullin Library in Astana. Our library is based upon that old library. We have more than 700,000 books and documents. Among them there are rare and ancient books, as well. Those books are not available for all the readers. Only in special cases do we give them to some researchers, and it is prohibited to Xerox them," says Asia Suleymenova, the library's director.
But it was an oblast library -- the A.S. Pushkin Library in East Kazakhstan Oblast -- that was the first in the country to create electronic databases and an electronic catalog.
Amateur historians in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan who live outside the countries' capitals or other large cities may find it increasingly difficult to gain access to unique materials.
But scholars wishing to study Islam as part of their cultural heritage are in an even worse situation, because the only books in national libraries devoted to that subject are those that have been acquired in the past 12 years.