The Tragedy of the Library

In the book I’m reading at the moment, the author briefly discusses the great Library of Alexandria and proposes it as a forgotten Great Wonder of the Ancient World. It truly was a wonder of its time. Situated in the most cosmopolitan city of a great Graeco-Roman-Egyptian empire, it housed hundreds of thousands of papyri featuring great works of the ancients. Philosophers and scientists gathered in its halls to read or debate new ideas, and so thirsty were the curators for knowledge that ships docking at the port were boarded and searched for papyri to be copied and stored. For some reason, I get the distinct impression that they turned a blind eye to all the contraband in their search for the latest by Aristotle.

But the Library is no more. Partly destroyed when Julius Caesar set fire to his own ships in 48 BC and allowed the fire to spread, the Library was finally completely destroyed by Emperor Aurelian between AD 270 and AD 275. All that remain of its contents are fragments which offer tantalising glimpses of the possibilities of other books which we will now never know. Unsurprisingly, from this stem the Dark Ages, when knowledge was possessed by an elite few who distorted information to keep the masses ignorant and compliant and themselves in power. Unsurprisingly, the first few to question that status quo were invariably charged with heresy by the Catholic Church and punished accordingly.

With austerity and budget cuts biting ever deeper, local authorities are forced to make savings where they can. Some things really shouldn’t be cut – care budgets, social services and welfare all cost money but are highly necessary. I would argue that libraries ought to fall into a similar category. They offer a free (or cheap, if you borrow CDs and DVDs) service to allow people who would not otherwise have an opportunity to do so to read books and newspapers at their leisure. If they wish, people can educate themselves, simply curl up with a novel, check the news headlines or research their family history. Virtually all libraries now have at least one computer terminal with access to the internet, and many have separate music and junior sections. My local library also now hosts two monthly book groups during the afternoons and evenings, encouraging readers to get together and get to know each other – and the books the library has on offer.

Such a valuable resource of great benefit to the community shouldn’t simply be thrown away because “everyone is online nowadays”. There is MUCH more to a library than simply the dissemination of information. They are places for learning, for debate and for social interaction; they encourage open-mindedness and free-thinking. Perhaps, thinking about it, that’s the real reason for the closures – lest the populace see they are being taken for fools.

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