The Legacy of Lost Libraries

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." - Jorge Luis Borges


Historic Library
Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

Knowledge is power. You’ve heard this. You’ve said this. You know this. Our ability to create, absorb, and record information is what sets us apart from everything else. It’s what defines humanity, and it’s probably why we’re captivated by its destruction.


Take, for instance, the Great Library of Alexandria. Its reputation precedes itself. The biggest library of the ancient world, the epicenter of all western knowledge, burned to the ground in a rampant fire set by Julius Caesar. All those documents, about 100,000 books worth of scrolls, turned to ash and lost forever. That’s the story at least, probably the one you’ve heard of the most. But the stories vary widely depending on where you look and the reality of what happened is heavily debated.


The truth is likely a lot more nuanced. For one thing, the library actually consisted of two separate buildings; the main library at the Mouseion, and the “daughter” library at the Temple of Serapis. It’s thought that the daughter library held about ten percent of the documents of the original library, so not all of the documents were lost to flames. It’s also important to note that the library had been in decline for a century before then anyway, so parts of the vast collections had been sold off to other entities. There are even credible reports of the library itself still existing decades or even centuries after the burning of the city, so it’s likely not true that the library was completely destroyed in that fire.


Eventually, both libraries were destroyed though. The main library was probably abandoned by the third century CE, and the daughter library was demolished by decree of the pope in the following century. The cataclysmic demise of the Great Library of Alexandria was, in reality, not very cataclysmic and more like a sad whimper at the end of a slow death. And all the knowledge it contained? Well, yes a lot of it was lost but a great deal of it was relocated; a large part of it having been translated to Arabic and held in the Middle-east to then be re-translated into European languages after the crusades.


But that’s not as fun of a story. People remember the great falls of great things, not the disappointing tumbles of things that were once great. This is why you know the story of the massive library burned to ash overnight, blinding humanity once again to the great depths of wisdom once at its fingertips, and not the story of how it actually survived that fire to die pitifully at the hands of men unworthy of its potential.


Modern Library
Photo by Gabriel Sollmann on Unsplash

Great libraries live on. Today, we have bookstores ten times bigger than Mouseion, not to mention the new biggest library in human history: the internet. Still, there’s something about large - physical - libraries that enthrall us. Big buildings with more knowledge than any human could possibly possess. They’re so strong and yet so fragile. Imperfect temporary impressions of the human condition.


I think what fascinates me most about the Library of Alexandria is that we’re so focused on the past that we forget where we are. We have the next great piece of lost wisdom in our hands as we speak. This text you are reading right now will fade away with time. You are reading lost knowledge. It just isn’t lost yet.


All libraries burn to the ground eventually. Whether intentional or not. Every bit of knowledge ever gained and recorded will be lost again. It is a certainty. And yet losses such as those of Alexandria feel like true losses. As though we can fight the push and pull of the universe’s tide. As though those papyrus scrolls which burned in an ancient war were the words of wisdom that escaped their true home in our hands. As though we had a right to such knowledge in the first place.


Now we keep our information on tiny silicone chips with transistors that speak in a code we created but don’t understand, and we lie to ourselves when we say that this library won’t burn, nay, can’t burn. It makes me wonder what ancient philosophers thought of the Great Library in their own time. If maybe they looked at all the scrolls and thought of how concrete that would be for humanity moving forward.


I like to think that the documents in Alexandria were not lost when they were burned or traded or destroyed. Instead, they simply completed their purpose. We found the knowledge, absorbed it, recorded it, and when the time came it went back to the void. Only to be rediscovered again centuries later, or a millennium later, or even more. And our current recordings will return to that same void once more in due time.


The takeaway, I suppose, is this: enjoy what you get to consume and learn about now because it, too, will go up in flames. And someday, someone will be discussing what exactly happened to your Great Library, and whether it was ever actually lost at all.


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