Burn the Great Library at Alexandria, Again


"…the Library at Alexandria was charged with collecting all the world’s knowledge. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens and a policy of pulling the books off every ship that came into port. They kept the original texts and made copies to send back to their owners." (Wikipedia)

We have it in our grasp to realize the original mission of the Library of Alexandria, "collecting all the world’s knowledge", but with significant improvements on the original plan:

  • Multiple, redundant, perfect copies.
  • Copies in multiple physical locations, (to avoid the problem of, say, one central location being burned down and losing the whole collection).
  • Storage of not only texts, but images, audio recordings (music, spoken word, etc.), and video.
  • The ability to search all of this knowledge comprehensively yet instantly that the librarians of Alexandria could not even have imagined (but would have loved!)
  • The ability to interconnect between all these texts and other media so that connections between them can be made explicit and easily navigable.
  • Access to all this from almost anywhere in the world, rather than scholars having to travel to a single location in Egypt.
  • Participation by all scholars (or anyone with something to share) from all over the world, rather than a relatively small group of scholars funded by a single government.
  • And all of this based on a voluntary process of sharing. No breaking in and stealing originals from anyone. If anyone wants to keep something to themselves they simply refrain from sharing it and this great project will leave them in peace.

Before we consider the threats to this new "Library of Alexandria" that we call the Internet, let’s pause for a moment and consider the historically unprecedented opportunity that lays before us.

To help us, let’s enlist a librarian from the Library of Alexandria by transporting him to our time. Let’s bring Zenodotus, the first superintendent of the Library, pioneer of the alphabetical storage of texts and metadata to mark texts for easy retrieval.

Once getting over all the other various shocks of coming to our time, he would be curious how we now deal with his own passion: scholarship and the preservation of the great texts.

We would show him how, rather than spending months making a copy of a text by hand, we are able to make a copy of a text instantly by copying from one computer to another. Furthermore, the source and destination for this copying need not be anywhere near each other but can be on opposite sides of the world!

We would then show him how all this information, stored all over the world, is instantly searchable. Perhaps we would do a "vanity search" for him and show him the thousands of results containing the word "Zenodotus" in texts on computers all over the world.

We could then show him how articles on him contain references to other texts with information on the history of the Library of Alexandria and the librarians who came after him. How each text links to another in a vast interconnected web of knowledge.

But, inevitably, in showing him information on the Library of Alexandria he would see that eventually the Library was burned. Though some of the work of the Library was preserved, much was lost. In the long term, the project was a failure.

And after showing Zenodotus the astounding opportunity to resurrect his project and improve on it greatly, how would we explain to him that making copies of information is increasingly under threat? That people who make copies of information have been sued and jailed? That unauthorized copies are hunted down and destroyed constantly?

How do we explain to him that we were this close to realizing the dream of the Library of Alexandria but decided to burn it down instead?