Alexandria, Lost and Regained

This is Part 2 of a 2-Part series on burning books, lost libraries and extremist attacks on culture. Check out Part 1, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, here

Libraries in Exile

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A 14th Century manuscript from Timbuktu saved by Abdul Wahid, a koranic school teacher. Courtesy of UN Mission in Mali.

The first reports from the newly-liberated town of Timbuktu were sure to mention the lost library. Islamist rebels in the west African nation of Mali had controlled the town for almost nine months, and inflicted terrible tortures on its Sufi inhabitants; but the world’s ire was roused foremost by the reports of a legendary library burning as the rebels fled. It is a familiar story; it harkens back to our fables of the vanished Library of Alexandria, and its similar trove of hand-copied manuscripts lost to zealots.

In the weeks that followed, the slow trickle of hearsay, propaganda and reporting at last revealed that Timbuktu’s prized treasury had not all been destroyed. Most of the town’s ancient books, dating back to the 13th Century, had in fact survived the destruction of the Ahmed Baba Institute. A cadre of brave citizens had hidden the volumes in their homes, shops and schools throughout the occupation, or even smuggled them south to Mali’s capital of Bamako for safekeeping.

The written word is a fragile thing. Despite now keeping a safe distance from flame-wielding extremists and civil war battlefronts, the surviving books remain in critical condition. Today they face more insidious, less headline-catching threats: poor storage conditions, damp, mould, humidity and city pollution. UNESCO and Ahmed Baba Institute researchers have warned that, without intervention, the majority of these fragile manuscripts will decay irreversibly in the coming years.

The ancient manuscripts of Timbuktu belong to a far older tradition than the books that line our shelves at home. Like the ancient tomes of Alexandria, Timbuktu’s manuscripts were copied and illustrated by hand. Pre-dating the printing press and mass production, each volume is a fragile thread linking us to the past, and its absence may create a void in our art and knowledge that no other could fill. How then are these books best preserved, so the fire never threatens them again?

Lacking the funds to build a new climate-controlled facility or restore the books page by painstaking page, preservationists are turning towards new technology. Curators’ resources are being poured into scanning the manuscripts and disseminating them online. Given the paucity of funding in Mali, the preservationists have run appeals through crowd-funding, pitching for donations toward the ‘Libraries in Exile’ through Indiegogo (more often of the domain of independent game producers and young filmmakers).

Digital storage has become our catch-all solution for preserving all our content, not just at-risk relics from Africa. By moving our information online, we hope it is freed from the depredations of the physical world. Tomorrow’s great Library of Alexandria, storehouse of all knowledge, is less likely to consist of a Borgesian maze of stacks and dusty tomes than the promise of a single, gleaming computer screen. Yet the internet and digital media may be no less vulnerable to the ravages of time than a trusty old book from Timbuktu. Indeed, the rapid advance of technology may be its own undoing.

Riding the Tsunami

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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The first challenge digital preservation must contend with is sheer volume. We are creating information at a speed that was inconceivable even a generation ago. As recounted in James Gleik’s The Information, in 1949 computer science pioneer Claude Shannon set down with a pencil and dime-store notebook and attempted to calculate the storage capacity of different media. Shannon estimated that the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica, would amount to 109 bits — just over 100 megabytes – and, choosing the largest storehouse he could imagine, all the books held in the United States Library of Congress would amount to approximately 1014 bits — or 10 terabytes. By 2012, Facebook was processing that volume of data every three minutes; more in a few minutes than a human being could read in ten lifetimes.

Every human being with a keyboard and an Internet connection has been transformed into both a content creator and consumer; each of us is a bricklayer for a new Tower of Babel without end. Writer David Foster Wallace complained of the modern phenomenon of ‘Total Noise’, stemming from “the tsunami of available fact, context and perspective.” We have more information at our fingertips than was conceivable even decades ago and, in an age of informational gluttony, we have great appetites.

This volume makes all this data difficult to store and save. Few institutions have the capacity. One is the US Library of Congress, which now adds to its archives of manuscripts and literature over over half a billion tweets backed up daily. But great libraries, whether in ancient Alexandria or modern Washington DC, are not self-sustaining — they require money and know-how. Digital storage appears unlimited and effortless, given we can access the trove through a phone that fits in our palm or a laptop balanced on our knees. The infrastructure is hidden from view, but it is nonetheless substantial: kilometre after kilometre of server farms hidden beneath nondescript city blocks. Like any other infrastructure, it requires constant maintenance to cope with demand. Like any other infrastructure it is physical, and therefore vulnerable.

The Endless Process

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Archived film stock, unspooling.

Our speed of innovation creates a second challenge: obsolescence. Whereas a book demands no intermediary technology or know-how to open and read (though a translator may come in handy) digital files require software environments, and often physical storage media — all of which continue to evolve at dizzying rates. Manuscripts mouldering in monastery libraries have endured centuries, and hieroglyphics etched in stone outstay millennia, but the life span of a digital format can be optimistically measured in decades.

Without concerted efforts, there is little guarantee that our content will make the jump successfully to a new environment or medium. The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access described digital information, contrary to prevailing wisdom, as “inherently fragile, prone to information loss and degradation”, requiring “relatively intensive levels of preservation to ensure usability.” By trusting in digital backups, are we simply transferring our content from one decaying format to another?

In digital form, the written word has an advantage: it consumes very little space, and is thus easy to transfer and store. In less than a decade Google has scanned an astounding 30 millions books for their online database. Less adaptable are newer media formats — audio, visual or interactive — which employ unique software environments. Take film, arguably the preeminent art form of the twentieth century, and in its original celluloid state one of the simplest of these new formats. In the United States, the wealthiest and most prolific cinema producer, over 90% of the silent films and 50% of sound films made prior to 1950 have been irrevocably lost. Film stock was poorly stored, or trashed — its value, and fragility, were not appreciated until later in its life-span.

In the 2013 Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities, film director and dogged preservationist Martin Scorsese noted;

“[Film preservation] isn’t something that’s done once. You have to keep going back, constantly, moving the films from one format to another, to make sure they survive, because it’s an endless process.”

The shift from physical film to digital cinema will inevitably see thousands upon thousands of films left behind. Long-term preservation requires the maintenance of digital masters, from which new prints and consumer editions (Blu-rays, video files) can be struck — and for which the costs are up to eleven times higher than physical film. Inevitably, copyright holders will decide certain films are not worth the expense. Consumer formats like DVDs have little long-term value either — the discs become unreadable over time, and the formats themselves will inevitably be as arcane as floppy discs or Betamax within a matter of years.

And that’s just film, a relatively easy format to convert. Transfer issues multiply for interactive art forms like from video games , which rely on more complex user interfaces and intricate technological foundations. The pattern of the early years of film has been repeated with video games: given the medium lacks the cultural capital of other art forms, and publishers see games’ value as fiscal rather than artistic, the majority of games made for older defunct systems (your beloved SNES, Playstation or N64) will inevitably be unreadable and inaccessible in the coming decades. Yet these new formats are where the most significant art of our century may emerge. 

The Copy Desk

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A medieval translator, toiling over an old manuscript.

The tsunami of content and inevitable format obsolescence, accelerating in tandem, expose the weaknesses of our increasingly digital ecosystems. The flood leaves us adrift in an incalculable mass of data, through which it is increasingly impossible to sift without search engines and gatekeepers like Google, whilst format obsolescence renders that same mass of data vulnerable to sudden changes, increasingly expensive to maintain. The sheer volume of content compounds the difficulty of prioritising works of cultural value over minutiae — or even predicting which is which. For in neglecting our emerging art forms we threaten to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors who blithely threw away photographic plates, comic strip masters and canisters of celluloid in the shortsighted conviction they held no future value.

The rigours and uncertainty of digital preservation ensure that the protection of any work, from a film to a manuscript, still demands an investment of funds, labour and time. Most importantly, it demands intention; the amorphous “internet”, where millions of pages come and go every day, cannot be relied upon to save our work for us. While today’s copyists now toil over a sea of screens and servers rather than reams of rolled papyrus, their purpose hasn’t changed. And it still matters to have humans in the driver’s seat. When a few light taps on a phone screen can conjure a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, our capacity to filter and interpret is our best remaining asset. Yet our digital recall reflects the age-old biases of nation, class and capital. Although the surviving manuscripts of Timbuktu can be scanned, the price tag has meant only a few thousand books were copied in the same period in which Google oversaw the digitization of millions of English language titles. 

The reach of the internet and ease of shifting data digitally does not negate the ongoing threats posed by human conflict. Online and digital infrastructure will inevitably be targeted in future conflicts, with viruses as capable of wreaking havoc online as a fire sweeping through the old library stacks. Destruction is made easier, and more painless, by reducing it to a simple “click”. Freedom of access remains under siege globally: censorship reigns in China, civil strife has seen governments in Syria and Egypt cut services to the people entirely, and proposals to end net neutrality habitually resurface in the United States. The lack of tangibility that has allowed digital information its impressive reach may also make it more difficult to defend if the infrastructure and innovation that underlie it collapses.

Alexandria Rising

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The New Library of Alexandria, Egypt.

In the summer of 2006, Wikipedia invited hundreds of its editors to Alexandria, Egypt. They, the self-styled successors to the ancient scholars, scribes and copyists, came to visit the recently opened Bibliotheca Alexandria. The new library looks out onto the Mediterranean Sea, presenting a granite face to the world inscribed with characters from 120 human scripts — many from parts of the globe the ancient Egyptians could scarcely have imagined. The Bibliotheca has yet to become as ubiquitous as its namesake; many of the shelves remain empty, awaiting donations and funds that are scarce in a time of domestic turmoil.  However, in a nod to its legacy, beneath the polished floorboards lies the only copy and external backup of the Internet Archive, a repository containing over 15 petabytes of digitized material available for free to the world. It is more information than a thousand such physical libraries could hope to hold on paper.

The mission of the Internet Archive — as with Wikipedia, as with the library of Alexandria lost millennia ago — is the preservation of, and access to, all knowledge. The Archive can only capture a fraction of the web, and struggles to preserve multimedia content — yet is is the world’s most ambitious attempt to ‘save’ the internet. Looking to the past, it echoes the dream of the original Library at Alexandra. Looking forward, it reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s vision in Foundation of a great library perched on the edge of the universe, designed to withstand the coming dark ages.

A presumption underlies these efforts at preservation — that a culture’s works are worth saving. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, the tutor Septimus counters that the lost contents of Alexandria should not be mourned:

“You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those left behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march, so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.”

We have prospered despite losing the first Library of Alexandria. Scholars and scientists in Babylon, India, China and renaissance Europe re-discovered the knowledge lost, and surpassed it in their turn. In the place of Sophocles’ missing stories, we told our own. After all, a play or poem or treatise can only be lost to a single fire if it is no longer in use; being actively copied and shared. And if it is not in use, why should we expend effort to preserve it, or waste our words in grief? 

My answer is that preservation is not just an act of valuing or privileging our heritage; it is an acknowledgement of our lack of foresight. What appears trivial today could tomorrow prove to be illuminating and inspiring. The theory of a universe composed of invisible atoms was once thought ridiculous, but it survived millennia until its time came, and new thinkers could push it further. A library’s value is precisely that we do not, like Septimus, have to wait for an idea to turn up once more in history’s march. Rather, it calls to us from the shelves or screen, to be drawn out, applied, tested or discarded. The library is the servant, not the master, of memory: a trove of what may have left our consciousness but not our reach. It could endure in the mind of a tribal elder, in an institute on the desert’s edge, or in the hum of a dozen server farms beneath our feet.

Books survive because people make the choice, over and over again, to save them. Timbuktu’s treasures may have escaped the fire, but they still demand expertise and expenditure to make the jump to new formats. In another decade or two, they may need to be scanned or converted yet again. No single back-up will do. Their best protection is not a library at all, but a community whose continued efforts and engagement ensure they will not be lost or forgotten. New technology has made possible libraries that dwarf the ancient Alexandria, hosting not only words but images, music and games — but it only has worth if we use this resource to engage with the past, present and unfamiliar in order to nurture the new. Where everything from a millennia-old manuscript to today’s tweets can remain part of the cultural conversation. If we can manage that, perhaps we will no longer need to fear the fire.


Photo Credits

Culture in Timbuktu 25: Mission de l’ONU au Mali – UN Mission in Mali via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Llaunes i cel·luloide: Pintanescu via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
The Translator: Pintanescu via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Ernie Reyes via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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