Great Disasters in Human History: Still Burning Books in the Age of Information

by Bronwyn Hopwood,
School of Humanities, University of New England

…although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, yet they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage…”
Petrarch Rerum Memorandum.

It is no coincidence that many key advances in human knowledge, industry, and achievement are related to the acquisition, storage, and dissemination of information. World history has its inception in the development of writing. The great empires of the ancient world acquired cohesion and stability through the codification of written laws, and lasting fame for their literature and libraries. The preservation and transmission of this literary heritage in the western world is seen as one of the great achievements of the monasteries and manuscript tradition, and the continuity and flourishing of literature and learning in the Near and Far East preserved these cultures from any so-called ‘Dark Ages’. With the dawn of the modern era came the Gutenberg press, which not only enabled the rapid dissemination of information and literature but also fostered freedom, enlightenment, and leisure for the literate masses as well as the privileged few. Now, in the digital era, sustained by the personal computer and internet, anyone, anywhere, can access or disseminate information twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We are living in the age of information.

Given that many of the advances in human knowledge, industry, and achievement are related to the acquisition, storage, and dissemination of information, it is no surprise that many of the great disasters and failings of human history are associated with the destruction or censorship of information and literature. History testifies to the loss of knowledge or diminishing of human freedoms resulting from disasters like the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, the sack of Constantinople, the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, the Nazi book-burning rallies, and controversial Golden Shield Project (or Great Firewall of China). Since access to information liberates and enlightens while restricting knowledge oppresses and disempowers, this raises questions about how we treat and handle literature and information. What value do we place on our literary heritage and are our practices in keeping with our ideals?

When we look at the proliferation of libraries and universities in the western world, and at the eBook and eJournal Revolution, it would seem that the state of information acquisition, storage, and dissemination has never been more secure. But behind the façade of the eRevolution the disturbing truth is that we live in an age of economic imperatives and administrative rationalisations. Sceptics who dispute that similar disasters could occur in Australia need only look at the burial in 1995 of over 10,000 valuable books in a university landfill because that institution’s library had insufficient funds to catalogue and store them. The attrition of knowledge does not stop there. Academic disciplines within Australian universities are regularly required to nominate quotas of library journals for subscription cancellations, librarians to meet cull-targets measured not by academic merit but by feet and inches of shelf space, and books deleted from university catalogues are sold off at nominal prices regardless of value. The general move away from individual journal subscriptions and storage falls foul of the moving wall agreements operated by eJournal databases to prevent access to the most recent scholarship (usually the last five years), and the failure to digitise early volumes makes these unavailable online. Both problems have significant ramifications for the pursuit of quality learning and research. And if university libraries are not to serve as repositories of knowledge a question of accountability remains. Universities are partially federally funded institutions so there is something to be said about the duty of these institutions to care for those resources paid for in part by the Australian tax-payer instead of engaging in the permanent and unregulated disposal of this heritage.

Turning from the issue of academic merit to the perspective of policy considerations, politicians and policymakers looking for observable, lasting results are constantly frustrated by the apparently endless black-hole that is educational spending. So what advice can we offer policymakers and politicians concerned about the state of education in Australia who want to promote an Education Revolution and leave a lasting monument of their commitment to making Australia a Knowledge Nation? And, if a real education revolution means making access to knowledge and scholarship available to all, how can this be done with equity and cost efficiency? It seems that it is time to build an ARK.

Imagine an Australian Repository of Knowledge (ARK)(or eLibrary Australia) providing online access to all electronic journals, academic eBooks, and curriculum literature to which all Australian universities, secondary schools, and public libraries have access. Quality libraries are critical to both teaching and research so why not promote equitable, nation-wide access to academic knowledge by funding an online repository to which all Australian educational institutions, whether urban, regional, rural, elite, egalitarian, underprivileged, tertiary, secondary, public, or private, have access. An ARK would help eliminate the duplication of institutional subscriptions for eResources and competition (read discrimination) between Australian institutions/students based on the disadvantages of uneven funding and remote location. At the same time an ARK would build nation-wide access to a platform of communal knowledge that reduces delays in tertiary research and gives secondary schools educational resources they currently only dream of. Access to the ARK through the public library system also would benefit the average Australian citizen by making scholarly resources traditionally sequestered in elite[ist] research libraries widely available, and may even inspire citizens to engage with the Australian system of higher research. With the current push for a national curriculum for secondary education and to benchmark tertiary academic standards, surely it makes sense to establish national minimum standards for institutional libraries and to promote equitable, well-funded access to electronic information for all.

© APH Network and contributors 2010. All rights reserved.

Citation: Bronwyn Hopwood, Great Disasters in Human History: Still Burning Books in the Age of Information. Australian Policy and History. May 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/great-disasters-in-human-history

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