Sunday, December 11, 2011

3rd December 2011

Newcastle University library, happily removing academic journals from the shelves to the (apparent) cheers of the academics (Letters, 12 November), is well behind the pace. Michael Wilding, an Australian correspondent, writes that Sydney University’s Fisher Library is planning to chuck out 500,000 books and journals to make room for, of course, more computers.

The first libraries we hear of are found in the Near East and, like Ashurbanipal’s (c. 650 bc), were mainly for internal reference purposes. That contained about 1,500 titles, with warnings against theft, maltreatment and late return. Libraries of the sort we would recognise began with the ancient Greeks. The finest of all was founded in Egyptian Alexandria in the 3rd century bc by the Greek king Ptolemy. His purpose was to outdo Athens as the intellectual centre of the Mediterranean, and his money ensured he did. Acquiring or copying texts went on at a phenomenal rate. Eventually it held nearly 500,000 rolls. Others got the idea, and rival scholarly libraries sprang up in Antioch and Pergamum, poaching top directors. They were a matter of national pride.

But they were not public libraries. These came with the Romans, martial conquerors of Greece but Greece’s cultural captives. Julius Caesar planned Rome’s first (39 bc). Emperors endowed them in large numbers, and by ad 350 there were 29 in Rome alone. You could not borrow the rolls, except by bribing the librarian, but you could make copies. Nowadays librarians rejoice that you can gawp, one page at a time, at a screen.

Mr Wilding likens modern librarians’ purges in favour of computerised literature to the Gutenberg revolution, when anything that was judged unworthy of becoming a printed book was lost forever, or to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, where books are rewritten to match state requirements — so easy on a computer. To that extent one must applaud another Australian university’s decision to bury books in landfill sites. When an electronic storm wipes out every computer and its contents, it will become the new Oxyrhynchus.

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