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Toward a New Alexandria–in the New Republic

Posted by Editor on April 1, 2010

by Lisbet Rausing, March 12, 2010

Imagine a new Library of Alexandria. Imagine an archive that contains all the natural and social sciences of the West—our source-critical, referenced, peer-reviewed data—as well as the cultural and literary heritage of the world’s civilizations, and many of the world’s most significant archives and specialist collections. Imagine that this library is electronic and in the public domain: sustainable, stable, linked, and searchable through universal semantic catalogue standards. Imagine that it has open source-ware, allowing legacy digital resources and new digital knowledge to be integrated in real time. Imagine that its Second Web capabilities allowed universal researches of the bibliome.

Well, why not imagine this library? Realizing such a dream is no longer a question of technology. Remarkable electronic libraries are already being assembled. Google Books aims to catalogue about 16 million books. The nonprofit Internet Archive already has some 1 million volumes. Public expectations run ahead even of these efforts. To do research, only one in a hundred American college students turn first to their university catalogue. Over 80 percent turn first to Google.

It is clear that if a new Alexandria is to be built, it needs to be built for the long term, with an unwavering commitment to archival preservation and the public good. A true public good itself, it probably needs to be largely governmentally funded. And, while a global and cooperative venture, it needs to be hosted by one organisation that is reputable, long-standing, nonprofit, and exists in a stable jurisdiction. The Library of Congress, the flagship institution of the world’s only surviving Enlightenment republic, comes to mind. There might be other possibilities, such as the New York Public Library, or the British Library, or a consortium of the world’s leading university libraries—UCLA, Harvard, Cambridge University, and so on.

In other words, the question for scholars and gatekeepers is not whether change is coming. It is whether they will be among the change-makers. And if not them, then who? Who else will ensure long-term conservation and search abilities that are compatible across the bibliome and over time? Who else will ensure equality of access? Ultimately, this is not a challenge of technology, finances, or ultimately even laws, difficult though they are. It is a challenge of will and imagination.

Answering that challenge will require some soul-searching: Do we have the generosity to collaborate? Can we build legal, organizational, and financial structures that will preserve and order—but also share and disseminate the learning of the world? Scholars have traditionally gated and protected knowledge, yet also shared and distributed it in libraries, schools, and universities. We have stood for a republic of learning that is wider than the ivory tower, and now is the time to do so again. We must stand up, as the Swedes say, for folkbildningsidealet, that profoundly democratic vision of universal learning and education….Read entire article here.

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