One of the tragedies in the history of human learning is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. There are conflicting accounts of the library’s destruction attributed to various perpetrators, beginning with Julius Caesar in 48 BCE and ending with the Muslim invaders in 642 CE.
However it was destroyed, it was a tremendous loss. The Library of Alexandria was the Library of Congress of the ancient world. It is believed that many great works of antiquity — known to us today only by title, or in quoted fragments, or not at all — were lost for all time. Our knowledge would be richer and, potentially, our path from the ancient world to the modern world would have been shorter and easier, had some of these works survived.
This week we see history repeating itself on a smaller scale as another library in Egypt is burned down:
Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck Monday along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.
The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what’s left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt’s latest bout of violence.
Among the most severe losses is the 24-volume Description of Egypt, written over a period of 20 years by as many as 150 contributors after Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt. The loss of of these priceless manuscripts is a terrible blow from the standpoint of history, but there is a bit of a silver lining:
[T]here are four other handwritten copies of the Description of Egypt. The French body of work has also been digitized and is available online.
We can only hope that there are multiple copies of many of the books that were lost in this fire. Losing old books hurts, but losing the information they contained hurts a lot worse. This tragedy makes the case for creating digital backups of any collection of unique (or even rare) books, paintings, maps, etc.
A great deal of knowledge was centralized in ancient Alexandria and then lost because human civilization did not have a robust set of backup procedures in place. Such procedures would have been very difficult to implement in the ancient world, and would have been no small task even in the mid-to-late 20th century, when many such efforts were, in fact, contemplated (and a few initiated.)
But today there is no excuse. We have the tools and we have the infrastructure. We’re long past the point where we should be losing knowledge to fire or flood.
Let’s get those backup procedures in place, and let’s follow them carefully.