Every once in a while, I think of the Library of Alexandria and I feel like weeping. By ancient world standards, this was the grandest library of its time. At its height, 100 scholars worked therein, and it may have housed up to 400,000 scrolls.
The thing about the loss of this library is that no one knows for certain what caused it. Was it a fire started by Julius Caesar, or was it some combination of a fire, looting, and just a long steady decline? Nor can we know for sure what irreplaceable scrolls were lost. What knowledge, what history… how much more advanced would we now be if we still had this information? This amazing library definitely existed, and now it doesn’t. That breaks my heart in two.
If that isn’t tragic enough, you can go to Wikipedia’s list of destroyed libraries, and you’ll see that Alexandria is just a tiny drop in a horrific bucket. Libraries have been destroyed, either accidentally or intentionally, for centuries.
Of course, earthquakes, floods, and fires happen. And when a fire breaks out amongst books, there’s plenty of fuel. What doesn’t burn is often ruined by smoke and water damage. These things can’t be helped.
But what I really can’t stand is when a library is destroyed by the actions of humans. Wars, looting, religious fervor, hate crimes, and ignorance abound. Nothing pisses off a radical like the existence of knowledge. The Nazis loved burning books. So does ISIS.
One library was destroyed because if it contradicted the religion in question, it was heresy, and if it agreed with that religion, it was redundant. So it was put to the torch without even being examined.
It amazes me that so few Americans really know about the War of 1812. In that one, the British Troops destroyed the entire Library of Congress in Washington DC.
But the one that shocked me the most was one I hadn’t heard about until doing research for this post. It was the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. It happened in 2013, and insanely enough, it was done by the Canadian government, under prime minister Stephen Harper. This one is too outrageous to paraphrase. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say:
“Digitization effort to reduce the nine original libraries to seven and save $C443,000 annual cost. Only 5–6% of the material was digitized, and that scientific records and research created at a taxpayer cost of tens of millions of dollars was dumped, burned, and given away. Particularly noted are baseline data important to ecological research, and data from 19th century exploration.”
Come on, seriously? This is disgusting. I don’t know if I am more emotionally impacted because it is so nearby in both time and location, but why on earth don’t we know better by now? Why are we so afraid of knowledge? Why?
My only hope for the future is that as more documents are digitized, they’ll be much harder to destroy.
Incendie Alexandrie by Hermann Goll, 1876