The Great Library at Alexandria
The first great library in Western culture was the library at
Alexandria. The library was the product of the Hellenization of Egypt
under the Ptolemies after the conquests of Alexander. Ptolemy II
Philadephus founded the library at some time in the 3rd century B.C.E.,
and under his patronage, as well as some rather draconian laws
concerning the confiscation of personal books in the city, the library
grew in size to become one of the glories of the ancient world. Writers
such as Strabo and Apollonius used it.
The library proved to be a shooting star, historically speaking.
Sometime just before the turn of the millenium the library was
destroyed, probably by fire. What exactly happened to it is one of the
million dollar questions in classical studies.
Today, we have lots of libraries in many countries, some of which are
outstanding. And we have the Internet. In my view, the Internet quite
possibly — I would almost say inevitably, but I don't exactly have a
crystal ball — will be the new great library of culture. And not only
of Western culture, but of world culture. And I don't think there's
quite as much of a problem with that library burning down. Although
there is the possibility that we might burn down the entire planet.
So maybe we should take a cue from history and be a tad more careful
We all know there is a lot of garbage on the Internet. But there is
quite a bit of good stuff too, and it will get even better. Over the
past few years there has been a real move by some major libraries,
sponsored by private enterprise outfits like Google, to convert their
collection to electronic means. A lot has to be worked out in terms of
this, escpecially in terms of legalities such as copyrights. But I'm
sure they will get it worked out eventually.
Now some libraries and their governments seem to be opposing this. The
gist of it seems to be that they are afraid that their own culture and
their own language will be subsumed in an internet that, at least for
the time being, it dominated by English. I don't understand this
attitude, myself. It would seem to me that the best way to preserve
one's language and culture would be to get books out there on the Internet,
where they can be accessed by literally billions of people.
I think the main beneficiaries of all of this will be students and
scholars. It might be great to hop on a plane to Spain and visit the
library itself, but it is also on the expensive side and takes time.
I've always preferred to do my research with books that I buy. That way
I can highlight text and make marginal notes which can be returned to
later. But if I have to check a book out of the library then the only
alternative is to either scan it and then print it out or zerox it. So
in terms of that process, printing out a book in electronic form is
hardly more complicated. I'm sure that eventually a student will be able
to highlight and make marginal notes in an electronic book as easily as
I do today with a paper book. Some of that technology already exists, in
Eventually, I think that it will all go electronic. Just about everybody
I talk to says that they prefer printed books, but the road to the
future is, I think, clear. But it is not going to happen overnight. In
fact I think it might take a few centuries. In the meantime, there will
continue to be printed books and electronic books, and there will be
libraries and there will be the Internet. But the scale is bound to tilt
to the other side eventually.
The happiest times I have ever spent in my life were in libraries. Going
through the catalogues, walking the stacks and picking a book off the
shelf and skimming through it, time would just disappear. And the only
sad moment would come when the lights would blink off and on, meaning
that the library was about to close — and so, unfortunately, I had to go.
Heaven is a library encompassing the whole universe. And it never closes,
and you never have to leave.
Library of the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt
Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid
Library of the Monastery of Mofra, Portugal
Benedictine Library at Melk, Austria
Photo by Darko, with thanks.
Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris
Library of Ste. Genevieve, Paris
National Library of Russia, St. Petersburg
LIbrary of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Reading room of the British National Library, London
It would be hard to tell how many works have been penned in
this one room. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital sitting
here, and Colin Wilson wrote The Outsider.
The current library at Alexandria.
I kind of like it, yeah? A fusion of
the old and the new.
And so we come full circle.