Did you know that the Library of Alexandria wasn’t destroyed by fire in 40 CE, but by budget cuts?* That’s what I was recently reminded by an article on io9.com by Annalee Newitz (Editor-in-Chief of io9), which then led me to a fascinating essay about The Great Library by Heather Phillips (an Assistant Branch Librarian of the US Courts Library).
Yes, Julius Caesar set fire to the Library of Alexandria, but it continued to function as a library for centuries afterwards. (Not all fires completely destroy targets.) Yet, the loss of the Library of Alexandria, while not as dramatic as Hollywood would have us believe, was still a tragedy. That’s because it was unique in the ancient world as not only the greatest repository of knowledge, with hundreds of thousands of scrolls (books), but because it was a truly open (i.e. free) library. According to Phillips, “It served all literate people who could physically access the precincts of the library.”
As with our own libraries today, The Great Library drew academics and scholars from the known world, to give lectures and study. What is knowledge without discussion, interpretation, dissemination? In addition, as Newitz writes, “At one point, over 100 scholars lived there full time, supported by state stipends that helped them maintain the scrolls, translate and copy them, and conduct research.” Then, like our current situation, bit by bit, politicians and purse-string holders ate away at the library’s underpinnings. Phillips explains, “Much of its downfall was gradual, often bureaucratic, and … somewhat petty. For example, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus suspended the revenues…, abolishing the members’ stipends and expelling all foreign scholars.”
What the Library of Alexandria attempted to create, the free libraries of the United States (and other countries) have actually established — a repository of universal knowledge, accessible to all. In fact, such free and open access to information is a supporting column of our democracy. That’s what makes the current eroding of our library systems not only sad, but dangerous.
Attacks on our libraries are coming from numerous fronts: political, technological and, of course, financial. In the name of “security,” our freedom to explore all kinds of information is being challenged. The Internet has become a seductive but pale imitation of library stacks, limited by stark logic. As economic support continues to be withdrawn, library hours and services are cut, often to the bone. However, budget cuts aren’t merely top-downward, from legislators looking to reduce deficient. For instance, a few years ago, the citizens of Pike County, Pennsylvania were asked to vote on a measure to help fund their libraries with a new tax. It was a nominal amount (something like $2.35 per person). The tax was voted down.
This short-sighted chipping away of our libraries is insidious, because each downward step can be made to appear so very sensible. At least, it isn’t catastrophic in nature, like Caesar’s apocryphal burning of the Library of Alexandria. It’s going to take time, and that is time that librarians are using to reshape their procedures, practices and roles according to this “brave new world.” What our libraries will be as the future defines our culture, economy and society is still an open book. But they need our support in keeping our respositories of knowledge and democracy open and accessible.
*NOTE: What was left of the Library of Alexandria’s collection of books was eventually burned in the seventh century. Phillips writes, “…during the Arabic conquest of Egypt… Caliph Omar reputedly sent a letter to his general, Amr ibn al-‘Aç, who had taken the city… instructing that all the books in the Great Library, save for the works of Aristotle, be destroyed.”