The Digital Library in the Ashes of Alexandria: What Good is a Universal Library?

For a course in Digital Libraries with Professor Richard Arias-Hernandez, on 6 November 2014, I submitted an essay about the dream of a universal library: a collection containing one copy of each work.

Stacks in the Library of Alexandria.

Source: Vicky Charitopoulou at flic.kr/p/7mEVg5, of the current Library of Alexandria.

That essay and its sensationalist title follow:


The Digital Library in the Ashes of Alexandria: What Good is a Universal Library?

“The idea of the Internet as a universal library contains a false promise: such a library cannot exist, or if it existed, it would be chaotic and impossible to use.”
—Miroslav Kruk

Some of the more optimistic among us have dreamt of a universal library, variously imagined as a collection of all human knowledge or a collection of all human works. The earliest library to have such an aspiration was the Library of Alexandra—or, anyway, the library Alexandria is imagined to have had—but the dream has recurred throughout history, famously in Vannevar Bush’s memex and H. G. Well’s World Brain. More recently, the Internet and digital libraries have made this dream seem possible again. Yet it is almost certainly no more than a dream; as many have argued, such a library would be impossible to create, impossible to maintain, and even more impossible to use. Even if it were possible, it might not be desirable; building and maintaining that library might violate rights to intellectual property, rights to privacy, and rights to cultural integrity. Despite these challenges, the dream itself might not be misguided, so long as it remains an aspiration in balance with other goals and principles.

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