Alexandria library, a true successor of its ancient manestuke
Egypt, Education, 5/22/2001
For the new Alexandria library to deserve being regarded as a successor to its ancient namesake, Mohamed Sid-Ahmed believes given conditions must be met
The revival of the Alexandria library is of deep cultural significance in that it is an ambitious attempt to recreate a glorious chapter in Egypt's history as the cultural capital of the world.
But any connection between the modern Alexandria library and the famous ancient one can only be purely symbolic. The original library was a repository of all the knowledge available to the civilised world in ancient times, its status recognised by all as the dynamic hub of cultural life for close on seven hundred years.
For the new library to earn recognition as a worthy successor of the first, it will have to establish its credentials as an innovative experiment in the here and now.
While any attempt to preserve and build on a legacy is commendable, the new Alexandria library will have to be future-oriented, not a mere continuation of what its namesake was in a distant past.
A library is not just a receptacle to store information, but reflects a societal need for a certain level of information.
The need arises when society reaches a stage of cultural maturity that can only be sustained and developed through a symbiotic relationship with the available information on the basis of which knowledge is built.
The ancient Alexandria library was not only a storehouse housing manuscripts gathered throughout ancient times, from 400 BC to 300 AD, it was the intellectual centre of Hellenistic culture.
The port of Alexandria was a favoured destination for ships from all over the civilised world. The authorities would visit the ships, borrow whatever documents or manuscripts they carried, copy the data they contained by hand and give the original texts back.
The library thus accumulated all available information that could be accessed at the time and scholars flocked to work on the manuscripts collected from all parts of the then known world.
However, at a time when literacy was the privilege of limited elites, the library was more of a museum than a library open to the ordinary layman.
What it contained was seen as rare masterpieces rather than as repositories of knowledge accessible to the wide public.
Nobody knows exactly when or how the Alexandria library disappeared, although it is commonly believed to have burnt down.
But what is certain is that, with the disappearance of the library, the Hellenistic civilisation suffered a serious setback sometime before the advent of Islam.
Actually, civilisation as a whole witnessed a 'cultural discontinuity' because no other library at the time sheltered anything comparable to the Alexandria library.
History lost its memory. A great effort was needed by Islamic scholars to restore it.
But however admirable the efforts they furnished to preserve or reproduce the works of great thinkers of ancient civilisations -- while adding their own valuable contribution to humanity's common cultural legacy -- the Alexandria library remains a unique phenomenon that is impossible to recreate integrally.
The Alexandria library had a specific function, which was to collect, classify (its catalogues were among the earliest examples of bibliography) and preserve human knowledge, culture and civilisation in a variety of fields and guarantee their transmission to future generations. Painstakingly copied out on parchment, the library's collection of volumes was necessarily limited in number and vulnerable to fire and other natural -- or man-made -- disasters.
This is in fact what happened to the Alexandria library, which disappeared completely, its invaluable collection of volumes irretrievably lost.
The situation changed radically with the invention in 1434 by Gutenberg in Germany of the printing press and the replacement of parchment by paper.
The printed book meant that knowledge was no longer limited to a privilege elite.
The dissemination of knowledge and culture became possible.
The printing press paved the way to the Renaissance, then to the age of Enlightenment.
Libraries were no longer museums, but springboards for the propagation of the knowledge that stands at the heart of modern civilisation.
The revival of the Alexandria library will be meaningless if it is to be nothing more than one more of the millions of libraries established after the invention of printing which deal essentially with the printed book.
The new Alexandria library must aspire to be more than a revival of the ancient library or a replica of any other pre- or post-Gutenberg library.
At a time when our very understanding of knowledge is evolving, it should set its sights on becoming a trend-setter for libraries in the new millennium.
Books will have neither the function they had before the first millennium nor what they have had since the middle of the second millennium, but what they promise to become in the third millennium; a means of transmitting information side by side with other audio-visual tools, like television, radio, computers etc.
In the age of the information revolution, a book will have to become an interactive medium capable of integrating new data all the time.
In a word, the time has come to launch the interactive book of the communication age, which will not have one specific author only, but will be constantly enriched by new contributions all the time.
All the ingredients for such a book already exist. Stored in a computer's memory, its paper format is only a moment in its indefinite development, the moment where the book is available to be read, but which will never be its definitive form. Books of this kind will never suffer the fate of the volumes housed in the ancient Alexandria library.
If the Alexandria library becomes associated with the launching of the "interactive" book, which would personify the product of collective thinking, and therefore of a higher level of intelligence, understanding, culture and civilisation, the new Alexandria library will have introduced something new.
This could make Alexandria, once the cultural capital of Hellenistic civilisation, the cultural capital of contemporary Mediterranean civilisation. But it will also have to face very serious challenges.
First and foremost, it will have to face the challenge that Israel represents.
A library is a long-term project. It cannot be visualised as an issue of the present day only. It will have to face the cultural, scientific and social challenges that Israel embodies, in a context where it is not war but peaceful rivalry that will determine which of the competitors is more worthy of becoming the leading culture and civilisation.
This type of challenge makes the library not a luxury, but an indispensable necessity for future identity and cultural survival, especially in a globalist environment in which demarcation lines are bound to erode.
Another expression of this type of challenge is the ability of the library to sponsor dialogues between civilisations and not allow these dialogues to degenerate into clashes.
Reviving the Alexandria library along the lines we mentioned would provide it with the means to undertake such a momentous task.
The fulfillment of the task requires nothing less than a cultural revolution, which in turn requires the eradication of illiteracy, not only of the classical, established, type of illiteracy, namely, the inability to read and write, but also present-day illiteracy, that is, computer-illiteracy.
We have seen how India, which, like Egypt, is an ancient civilisation with many of the problems faced by a developing country, made amazing strides forward in the field of computer software.
Today, India competes with Silicon Valley in California, the world's most advanced centre for the development of computer sciences.
This is proof that not only India but other ancient civilisations carry within them the seeds of a new awakening, and that, in the right climate and with sufficient determination, these seeds can yield fruit.
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