Libraries of Hope
Dec. 10, 2023.
5 min. read. Interactions
SB Fisher explores the Information Age's battle for knowledge, concluding that the enduring significance of libraries and digital repositories is pivotal in countering information restrictions.
The storage of information for future generations is a sacred, necessary act. The battle for information that is available to us never ceases. For decades though, with the advent of widespread internet access, we have acclimated to the belief that anyone with a smartphone can access anything they want at any time.
The days of ordering books from your local library archive to look up a fact or some statistics is so ancient as to feel quaint, with only scholars at the academic fringes ever delving into the paper mausoleums we have accumulated. Most of us feel, rightly or wrongly (which we’ll get into), that we could find any information we could ever need.
Yet as we live through the Information Age, as the output of humanity’s data streams escalate daily, libraries are not becoming obsolete, but ever more relevant. Libraries are not some ancient custom we should only maintain because of tradition, beauty, or nostalgia – but a vital element in the sincere progression of the human race.
Libraries hold a central place in our human story. The human instinct to preserve knowledge is one of the catalysts for our rampant technological growth as a species. If Baghdad scholars hadn’t dutifully recorded the work of the Ancient Greeks in the Islamic golden age, we today would have no knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and other titans of philosophy, literature and art.
And – without Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles (okay, maybe less that last one) – civilization as we know it wouldn’t be here today – indeed it may not even exist. Take a second to think what great knowledge has been lost (that we will never know about) to barbarous cultural vandalism, accidents, and wilful destruction. It’s already painful to think of the one’s we do know about.
The classic example is the Library of Alexandria, which Caesar burned to the ground in an ‘accidental’ fire. In those flames, generations of knowledge were lost – and the world was set back centuries, with its loss contributing to an extended ‘Dark Age’ for humanity during the medieval era, where violence, superstition, and fear reigned. Make no mistake. Libraries are a civilising force. The knowledge within their walls is the foundation for a society always improving – intellectually, technologically, and morally.
The Battle for Knowledge
Sacred and trusted repositories of knowledge are ever more vital in a world drenched with false information. Access to that knowledge is even more critical. It’s an easy point to forget, but a whole publishing industry exists that actively fights to restrict information. The academic publishing industry is a perverse joke, a deliberate gatekeeper erected to guard knowledge behind paywalls, revoke access, and determine – indeed – which knowledge gets published at all, and who can read it. Despite best efforts to the contrary, such as Sci-Hub’s ‘piracy for papers’, the problem remains.
Your smartphone, unless accompanied with vats of money, can’t access everything after all. Not even close. Add in ISP restrictions, national government censorship, the ‘dark’ web, and all the unindexed information spewed out daily – it would be a surprise if it could access half of it. This wouldn’t be a huge problem but – conditioned as we are to believe in open access information when the exact opposite is true – we need a more energetic vigilance when it comes to our approach to how we store information and who controls the permissions. In a world of DLTs and the global acknowledgement of the issue of centralised custodians when it comes to money, a solution to the problem for information is hopefully not far behind.
For now, we rely on Google, whose mission – remember – is to ‘organise the world’s information and make it useful and accessible’. However, they gave up on the mission to scan the world’s books, resisted at every turn by the publishers and copyright holders of those books. 25 million books are scanned – but no one is able to read them. Yet you don’t have to be a published author to worry about our reliance on Big Tech’s carnivorous approach to our culture, and to the warping effects of Big Data, and the idea of entrusted the accumulated knowledge of our world to some executives with a profit-margin to maintain.
Digitisation creates opportunities for a new path though. One where libraries are just cultural touchstones of power, but counter cultural ones. Civilisation in the face of censorship, knowledge in the face of power. Perhaps most famous is Minecraft’s uncensored library, which provides unfiltered access to news, media, history, science and journals through the medium of the world’s most popular game.
Digital libraries are a powerful force of egalitarianism. Not everyone lives in Oxford and can go to the Bodleian library. Despite the continued battle for information, these libraries have created a better access to our human story for everyone and, thanks to their proliferation and to the tireless efforts of those behind it, the concept of ‘losing’ information forever to digital Alexandrian fires is ever more remote. Want to read almost any book published over 75 years ago? Now you can.
United in Knowledge
We can, and should, go further though. We can, and should, continue to organise the world’s information and make it accessible. We should not do it for profit, and no one should have the keys. DLTs may in the future provide a novel avenue for storing information in a distributed, permissionless manner – and we should take those opportunities as they arise. A shared, holistic, atavistic, openly accessible, uncensored access to a library containing the world’s information is a dream that could bind the human race at this crucial moment where our increased bandwidth is beginning to tear us apart.