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VoxEU Column Economic history Productivity and Innovation

Lessons from history: How removing barriers to knowledge can spur innovation

At the end of the 19th century in Italy, books and manuscripts were transferred from monasteries to public libraries, making much of the knowledge safeguarded in monastic libraries suddenly available to the public. This column explores the link between this development and innovation. Access to knowledge through public libraries significantly increased innovation: municipalities that received books and manuscripts from monasteries increased their patenting activity by about 48%. This effect was persistent over time, suggesting that disseminating useful, even basic, information has a potential long-term impact on societal development.

A crucial question in economics is what drives the wealth and prosperity of nations. Economists tend to agree that technological progress is key to economic growth, thus it is important to understand the drivers of innovation also from a historical perspective. Recent research emphasises the vital role of ‘useful knowledge’ in societal advancement, establishing it as a mainstay of innovation and economic progress over centuries (Mokyr 2005, Squicciarini and Voigtländer 2014). Access to such knowledge was crucial for the adoption or improvement of existing technology, and to invent new techniques.

Recent studies have proposed that institutions such as economic societies, learned academies, and research universities facilitated access to such knowledge (Cinnirella et al. 2022, 2023, Dittmar and Meisenzahl 2022, Maloney and Valencia Caicedo 2022). In a recent work, we suggest that knowledge previously stored in monasteries in Italy was in fact useful for innovation (Buonanno et al. 2024).

Information embedded in books and manuscripts in monastic libraries could have been particularly relevant in socioeconomic contexts characterised by low levels of human capital and technological backwardness. Indeed, we show that access to monastic books and manuscripts through public libraries significantly increased innovation in Italy at the end of the 19th century.

Monastic libraries, manuscripts, and innovation

Books and libraries have historically played a critical role in disseminating knowledge and stimulating intellectual progress. Books were the primary means to share and preserve scholarly thought, scientific discoveries, and cultural heritage (Buringh and Van Zanden 2009). Knowledge accumulated by members of religious communities is rarely identified as a determinant of innovation. Yet, for centuries, monasteries have been the keepers of traditional and classical knowledge and their libraries were the ‘heart of Western learning’ (Harris 1999). Monks themselves often advanced the boundaries of knowledge in many domains ranging from agriculture and glass-making to music, accounting, aeronautics, and genetics.

We study the impact of an anticlerical reform which suddenly made available the stock of knowledge that had been accumulated in monasteries over centuries. Shortly after unification in 1861, the Italian state ceased to recognise religious orders, leading to the closure of their houses. Monastic properties were expropriated and sold through public auctions. In some cases, monastic establishments were handed over to local municipalities, to be converted into public schools, kindergartens, or hospitals. This process also involved transferring books, manuscripts, and scientific documents, once jealously guarded in monastic libraries, to existing local public libraries or using them to establish new ones. Therefore, much of the knowledge safeguarded in monastic libraries suddenly became available to the public, arguably as an unintended consequence of the anticlerical policy.

We argue that this sudden availability of useful information, contained in monastic books, had a positive effect on innovation. To test this hypothesis, we first digitised detailed information on public libraries from a survey published in 1893 by what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry, and Trade. The survey lists all major and minor public libraries in Italian municipalities, with information on each library’s location, name, origin, type of ownership, year of establishment, and number of volumes received after the pivotal reform on monastic orders. We show in Figure 1 the municipalities that received books and manuscripts from closed monasteries, observing that the policy did not affect a specific area of the Italian peninsula or specific cities, but was widely geographically distributed.

Figure 1 Municipalities receiving books once stored in monasteries

Figure 1 Municipalities receiving books once stored in monasteries

We then linked this information with historical data on innovation, measured by patents issued in Italy between 1863 and 1883 that report the inventor’s location (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Spatial distribution of patents across Italian municipalities

Figure 2 Spatial distribution of patents across Italian municipalities

It is well known that industrial activity, and therefore innovation, was primarily concentrated in the so-called industrial triangle, that is, the area between Genoa, Milan, and Turin. Typical innovations at that time related to food and beverages, basic agricultural technology, or simple machines. Indeed, a text analysis of the titles of the domestic patents granted in 1871, shows the relatively low technological content of Italian innovations. As reported in Figure 3, the most common nouns in the titles of the patents include terms such as fucile (rifle), macchina (machine), cottura (cooking), seta (silk), calce (lime), and mattone (brick).

Figure 3 Word cloud of most common names in the title of Italian patents in 1871

Figure 3 Word cloud of most common names in the title of Italian patents in 1871

Our analysis shows that municipalities with a population larger than 10,000 that received books and manuscripts from monasteries increased their patenting activity by about 48%. This finding is not explained by pre-existing characteristics of the municipalities selected as recipients of the monastic material. In fact, the law governing the redistribution of monastic assets – both movable and immovable – only prescribed that books should remain within their province and be devolved in agreement with the Ministry of Education. Before the reallocation of monastic books, there were no significant differences between municipalities that became recipients of monastic books and those that did not.

We find that the results are mostly driven by the enlargement of previously existing general-purpose libraries. Since the establishment of new public libraries did not affect innovation, it suggests that the increase in innovation was not driven by the creation of a public space where new ideas could be exchanged and discussed. The positive impact of general-purpose libraries, moreover, supports the idea that access to generally useful knowledge, rather than specific religious knowledge, spurred innovation. Finally, we can exclude the notion that our results are driven by the redistribution of other monastic properties that affected innovation, such as buildings or land, perhaps through an income or wealth channel.

The long-run effects of the innovation advantage

Our main finding is that municipalities that received monastic books witnessed an almost immediate surge in their innovative activity, as measured by patents per capita. However, the data also reveal that the effect on innovation was persistent over time. In fact, we find that the increase of books in public libraries due to the closure of monasteries is associated with greater innovative activity also in 1910–12, more than 40 years after the reform. Innovation in 1910–12 is measured not only through the number of patents but also with the number of exhibitors at the 1911 World Fair held in Turin. Taken at face value, the long-run analysis suggests that a 10% increase in the number of books in public libraries in 1893 is associated with an increase of about 1.7% in patents per capita in 1910–12 and about 1.3% in exhibitors at the Turin World’s Fair. This is not to say that the content of monastic books had a direct impact on the technological content of innovations around 1911. But given the incremental nature of technological progress, the technological advantage accumulated after the reform in 1867 persisted also in the long run.

A final important result relates to human capital. We said that the initial innovation advantage caused by the increase in useful knowledge might have laid the groundwork for incremental innovation, thus explaining the persistent advantage. A possible alternative mechanism is the accumulation of human capital. It could be argued that enriching existing libraries might have led to an increase in human capital, which in turn could have spurred more innovation (Mokyr et al. 2020). This enduring effect cannot be attributed to a general increase in population literacy, as the average literacy rate of municipalities that received monastic books is not significantly different from that of non-recipient municipalities.


What lessons can we draw from the experience of historical Italy? Our analysis, based on newly digitised data on public libraries linked with yearly data on patents, provides us with at least two important findings: first, as suggested by several historians, monasteries were important keepers of Western culture and the knowledge embedded in their books and manuscripts was indeed useful. Secondly, once this knowledge was made publicly available, information and notions in these books became useful for innovation, at least in a relatively backward economy such as Italy after its unification. This lesson from the past bolsters current arguments for promoting open-access policies to ensure that useful knowledge is accessible to all. Policymakers should recognise the importance of disseminating useful, even basic, information and its potential long-term impact on societal development.


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Buringh, E, and J L Van Zanden (2009), “Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and printed books in Europe, a long-term perspective from the sixth through eighteenth centuries”, Journal of Economic History 69(2): 409–45.

Cinnirella, F, E Hornung, and J Koschnick (2023), “Flow of ideas: Economic societies and the rise of useful knowledge”, CEPR Discussion Paper 17422.

Cinnirella, F, E Hornung, and J Koschnick (2022), “The importance of access to knowledge for technological progress in the Industrial Revolution”,, 6 December.

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Maloney, W F, and F Valencia Caicedo (2022), “Engineering growth: Innovative capacity and development”,, 24 March.

Mokyr, J (2005), “The intellectual origins of modern economic growth”, Journal of Economic History 65(2): 285–351.

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