Visions of Alexandria: The Universal Library, Then and Now

June 17, 2011 by Garner Gollatz
Category: Technology, Culture

If scholars, linguists and book lovers could travel through time, one of their first destinations would be the Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt. In the time of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, this legendary center of learning was reputed to be a universal library, gathering what was then all the world's Royal Library of Alexandriaknowledge in a single place.

The original Library of Alexandria has long since vanished. The ideal it represents, however, continues to inspire visionaries in the digital age. Today, tourists and scholars can find a similar experience at sites such as Egypt's new Biblioteca Alexandrina, while digital pioneers are coming closer than ever to creating a true universal library online.

The First Universal Library

The original Library of Alexandria, founded by Egypt's King Ptolemy II in the 2nd century B.C., was said to contain hundreds of thousands of scrolls from throughout the ancient world, written in Greek and many other languages. For centuries afterward, Ptolemy’s creation helped make Egypt an active hub of scholarship and education.

The Library's exact fate remains a mystery. Historians have blamed its destruction on Julius Caesar, the Emperor Aurelian, religious strife in the late Roman Empire and invading Arab armies. What is certain is that its disappearance marked the end of ancient Egypt’s intellectual preeminence. The dream of a universal library went into eclipse for much of the next 2000 years.

Alexandria Rises Again?

In 2002, a new incarnation of the Library of Alexandria opened its doors. Sponsored by the Egyptian government, the Biblioteca Alexandrina is a state-of-the-art complex designed to hold millions of books, as well as museums, exhibitions, high-tech multimedia and digital collections, a planetarium and multiple centers for academic research.

The Biblioteca Alexandrina collects books in Arabic, English and French, reflecting the special place of all these languages in Egyptian cultural life. English has been the most important foreign language in Egypt since the British period, a status bolstered today by such institutions as the American University in Cairo. The French influence stretches back to Napoleon Bonaparte's occupation in 1798–99, and present-day Egypt is a member of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie.

In February 2011, young people in Alexandria reportedly gathered to protect the library from looters during the popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak's regime. It remains to be seen if the library will fulfill its promise in a new era of openness — and perhaps a new efflorescence of Egyptian scholarship and intellectual life.

The Dream Goes Digital

In its work with the U.S. Library of Congress and UNESCO on a World Digital Library, the Biblioteca Alexandrina is helping to build another bridge between past and future. With the explosion of knowledge in contemporary times, it’s clear that a true universal library — if one ever exists — will be made of ones and zeroes rather than paper.

Google has led the way in recent years with its effort to digitize millions of books and make them accessible for free on the Internet. This project has even drawn comparisons to Egypt's celebrated library of old. But it has also aroused concerns about intellectual property rights and the exploitation of the world’s storehouse of knowledge for profit.

In February 2011 a federal judge struck down a proposed settlement between Google and the Authors' Guild of America. The settlement would have allowed the company to go ahead with its plans to put the texts of many copyrighted works online — including many so-called "orphan works" whose authors can't be reached and therefore can't give permission for their books to be reprinted or otherwise reproduced.

Still, the apparent death of the Google settlement won't be the end of the story. The World Digital Library aims to create a universally accessible online collection of digitized manuscripts from many languages. The Universal Digital Library, created by Carnegie Mellon University with partners in India and China, continues to expand. And Google has already succeeded in digitizing millions of books for its collection, many of which are out of print.

A truly universal library may be tough if not impossible to achieve, given legal barriers and the millions of books published every year. Yet King Ptolemy's millennia-old dream, it seems, is still alive.

Photo attribution: Dallas75

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