Given the scale of library cuts in the UK and elsewhere, and the anger generated by them, it’s worth reaching back for a historical precedent that shows just how damaging cutbacks in library funding can be. And a scholarly paper by Heather Phillips available online from Library Philosophy and Practice proposes that the Great Library of Alexandria, subject of a dozen myths of cataclysmic demise and a holocaust of its contents, was destroyed, not by conquest, but by cuts.
As Phillips remarks, the Great Library was “an institution which has assumed legendary proportions in the mythos of Western civilization” – a compendium of classical learning “whose aim was to contain a copy of every book ever written.” As well as huge detail on the nature, history, and subsequent hagiography of the Library, the article also covers the various versions of its demise. “The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is a part of history that has taken on many of the trappings of myth,” Phillips continues, citing the various culprits blamed for the crime by different historical accounts, including Julius Caesar, the Emperor Emperor Aurelian, Christian mobs, and last but not least the Caliph Omar during the Islamic conquest of Egypt. Indeed, the burning of the Great Library is one incident used repeatedly by anti-Islamic commentators in the West as ammunition against Islam. “This account must be called into question as it seems to have sprung up only in the thirteenth century – more than five hundred years after the event supposedly occurred,” Phillips points out.
Phillips’s actual interpretation of the demise of the Library, though, is that “much of its downfall was gradual, often bureaucratic, and by comparison to our cultural imaginings, somewhat petty. For example, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus suspended the revenues of the Mouseion, abolishing the members’ stipends and expelling all foreign scholars.” She does not discount the impact of conflict on the Great Library: “What institution could hope to attract and keep scholars of the first eminence when its city was continually the site of battle and strife?” But she emphasizes that the most dramatic versions of its destruction are more a matter of myth-building than historical fact: “The utter destruction of the Western world’s deepest and broadest repository of learning surely seems, psychologically, to demand an appropriately apocalyptic dénouement.”
Instead, it looks more like the Great Library endured death by a thousand cuts. The spirit of Vaizey, rather than the spirit of Caliph Omar, seems to have been the moving spirit behind its end. And this in the context of an OECD report that shows that literacy and numeracy in England have actually slammed into reverse, with standards among 16- to 24-year-olds in decline compared to previous generations. It looks like a spirit that destroys civilizations – and populations.