Copyright © 2006 Henrietta W. Hay
Libraries from Camels to the Internet
April 14, 2006
The urge to preserve knowledge is at least as old as the cave man, from
inscriptions on cave walls to modern libraries.
Next week is Library Week and it is a good time to think about libraries over the years. I can't resist telling again one of my favorite library stories. I do not vouch for the truth of it, but I found it in some book long ago.
Persian Vizier Abdul Kasem Ismael lived in the first millennium A. D.
His library consisted of 400 camels which carried a 17,000 volume library everywhere he went. The camels were trained to walk in an order that ensured the manuscripts were alphabetically arranged.
Much older than the camels, The Royal Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt was the largest library in the ancient world. It is generally assumed to have been founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, during the reign of Ptolemy II of Egypt. At its peak, the Royal Library is believed to have held anywhere between 40,000 to 700,000 manuscripts. Plutarch wrote that Julius Caesar and his Roman Legions burned it in 47 BC. Looks as though modern book burning is not so modern. The reasons for book burning have been the same since Caesar. It is always about knowledge that someone has that someone else doesn't want them to have.
Fortunately the need to increase and preserve knowledge far exceeds the efforts of the censor, so the growth of libraries through centuries has been steady. Today nearly every city, town and hamlet in America has its public library.
Locally, he first library in Happy Valley was built over 100 years ago by Andrew Carnegie. It has always been supported by taxpayer dollars, first by the city, then by the county and now as a district.
Now in the 21st century, It has outgrown the building it has been in since 1974. It has not suffered from stumbling camels or enemy fire, but from a combination of a greatly increased circulation as the county has grown, ever increasing sources of information, and the need for greatly increased computerization involving extensive electrical upgrading of the building. But voters twice rejected by the narrowest of margins a vote to construct a new central building.
Fortunately librarians are always resourceful and nothing can be allowed to stop adequate service. So the aging grocery store/library is being upgraded.
The book collection is still there, of course, and they also have audio books, DVD's and CD's, microfilm and service to the homebound. But the biggest change is the computer, with the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Web encompasses the greatest store of information the world has ever known, all of it roaming around somewhere out there in cyberspace.
Not everything on the Web is free, so another function of libraries is to buy subscriptions to databases and make them available available on line 24/7.
From the Royal Library of Alexandria to the Mesa County Public Library seems an impossible feat of imagination, but they have one thing in common. Both have existed for the preservation of knowledge. We have gone rom papyrus to paper to printing to the computer. The modern library exists not only to preserve knowledge, but to make it available for everyone -- the University of the People.