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Information Cosmos

Seeking order amid informational chaos? Learn some lessons from the ancient Library of Alexandria.

The classical world offers a legendary story about enlightenment through assembled knowledge-the great Library at Alexandria-that embodies both our hopes and our anxieties for the digital age. Will innovation and free inquiry thrive amid the Web’s great storehouses of knowledge? Or will an information elite monopolize access to knowledge and grow increasingly isolated from the public?

Later this year, a state-of-the-art research facility opens in Alexandria, transforming legend back into reality. Announcing the project, Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak vowed the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina would be “a digital lighthouse for the world.” Many countries are contributing precious archival holdings on microfilm or CD-ROM and returning documents confiscated during wars and occupations.

Alexander the Great conceived the original library as a tribute to his teacher, Aristotle. For over 600 years, it attracted the ancient world’s greatest scholars. In its confines, Euclid mastered geometry, Archimedes struggled with mechanics, Ptolemy constructed his astronomical model, and Herophilus located intelligence within the brain. The library’s destruction signaled the onset of the Dark Ages. The erection of the new facility invites us to consider the lessons its predecessor’s history holds for the information age:

Information is not knowledge. The Alexandrian librarians didn’t just collect documents; they struggled to create order (cosmos) from chaos. They developed cataloguing systems, defined disciplines, and produced definitive editions of significant works. Today’s interfaces and search engines must support multiple paths to knowledge, but our ultimate goal must still be to seek order from informational chaos.

Information is a global resource. Alexander built his city at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia. His empire was populated by people from across the world. He encouraged intermarriage and respect for all faiths. The library extended these ideals, preserving works from diverse traditions. Modern archives must do the same.

Theory must be grounded. Alongside the reading rooms stood a menagerie, an observatory, a dissecting room, botanical gardens and a cafeteria where scholars broke bread together. Their work combined making and thinking, the sciences and the humanities, the stench of pachyderms and the crackle of papyrus. Insofar as contemporary education encourages abstraction over experience and specialization over breadth, it compromises those ideals.

Power corrupts. In his desire to amass knowledge, Alexander granted librarians almost unlimited power. Ships entering the port were raided, all books confiscated. The owners later received copies; the originals remained state property. However worthy its aims, state power represents a danger to liberty and must be carefully monitored.

Ignorance breeds backlash. While a resource for scholars, the library remained closed to the public. Demagogues exploited that isolation, stirring up the masses. The resulting culture war pitted Christians against “pagans,” the public against scholars. Rioters seized Hypathia, a remarkable woman who had made major contributions to math, physics and astronomy, dragging her from her chariot and slashing her with seashells. Mobs reportedly looted and destroyed the library itself. In the absence of public discussion, ignorance begets moral panic.

Centralization represents vulnerability, not strength. The librarian’s dream was to assemble all the world’s books in one location. Ptolemy III, for example, coveted the original manuscripts of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. When the Athenians refused to part with them, Ptolemy left a deposit in gold for their loan. Then, he forfeited the treasure, keeping the manuscripts, which perished with the library. How many more masterworks might have survived if they had remained in Athens? The strength of the new digital culture is that it originates from many sources, is stored on many servers and is distributed through a variety of pathways. We should be leery of schemes that compromise these systems.

Planners of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina seem to have learned many of these lessons. The extraordinary facility will have reading rooms larger than Grand Central Station, architecture that fuses ancient symbols with futuristic structures, and a computer catalogue that enables searches in multiple languages. It will also incorporate a planetarium, an Information Studies school, and museums of archaeology, calligraphy and science. Its stacks will be open to scholars and the general public. The modest initial collection of 300,000 books falls short of amassing all the world’s knowledge, but the library’s real importance is symbolic, enabling Egypt to embrace its cosmopolitan past and holding open the ideal of intellectual freedom against a sometimes repressive government. Still, I wonder if Egypt-and the modern world in general-is ready to revive the ideals of the ancient library. Or is the facility’s mission doomed to be compromised by social and political forces beyond its control?

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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