This past weekend I finished Luciano Canfora’s The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World.
Canfora, an Italian scholar of ancient literature, examines the history of Egypt’s famous Library of Alexandria and the contradictory accounts of what happened to its books.
So many writers with differing agendas--both in antiquity and modern times--have had their say in this matter that it is difficult to unravel truth from fiction. With an impressive grasp of history and source material, Canfora tries mightily.
Much is disputed: the location of the collection, its composition, its size by volume count, which potentates helped build and care for it, and which despots destroyed it in whole or part.
Warfare, religious zealotry, political intrigue, hubris, and flames all took their toll at various times, and in nefarious ways, on the Ptolemic dynasty’s center of scholarship.
In one narrative of an event dating to the year 641, the Muslim Caliph Omar sends a message by envoy to the Emir Amrou Ibn el-Ass that if "[the library's books] contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then, and destroy them."
Amrou, an educated man sympathetic to his Christian contemporaries and the collection they wished to preserve, reluctantly complied.
The books were distributed to the public baths of Alexandria, where they were used to feed the stoves which kept the baths so comfortably warm. Ibn al-Kifti writes that 'the number of baths was well known, but I have forgotten it' (we have Eutychius's word that there were in fact four thousand). 'They say,' continues Ibn al-Kifti, 'that it took six months to burn all that mass of material.' Aristotle's books were the only ones spared.Today, libraries and many other institutions are under siege in the United States, though by accountants and public officials rather than foreign armies.
In response to lean economic times, nearly all states have cut social services, and library budgets are likewise on the chopping block.
The venerable Boston Public Library, founded in 1848, is considering the closure of eight of its ten branch libraries.
Recurring reductions in the Hawaii State Public Library System budget have forced librarians to rely solely on fees and fines to pay for new materials.
Here in Illinois, things are no less bleak. The state has been slow to forward funds to the nine cooperating library systems, including Lincoln Trail Libraries System, of which TUFL is a part.
Essential per capita grants to libraries were reduced by 16%. And the City of Urbana is predicting a budget shortfall of nearly $1.5 million.
All of this is happening at a time when greater numbers of people are seeking the resources of libraries [pdf].
In the grip of one of the most severe recessions since the Great Depression, more Americans are turning to their libraries not only for free access to books, magazines, CDs and DVDs, but also for a lifeline to technology training and online resources for employment, continuing education and government resources. In January 2009, over 25 million Americans reported using their public library more than 20 times in the last year, up from 20.3 million Americans in 2006. It is likely this trend continued or increased through the remainder of 2009.That library funding is diminishing while library usage is increasing perplexes those of us sitting this side of the reference desk.
We may not be forced from our positions at the point of a spear or watch the governor (like archbishop Theophilus) reduce each library "to a heap of rubbish" or see them all "closed forever, like tombs" as in fourth-century Rome.
But the fate of our public libraries in tumultuous times speaks volumes about the men and women occupying seats of power, their wisdom, and their values.