Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Here we go again...

In the wake of austerity, councils across the U.K are having to make stringent budget cuts and this is prompting the closure of around 450 libraries around the country. Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is outraged and has penned a piece for on the subject. Seeking to anchor his polemic with a precedent from history he writes:

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship......

I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

Edward Gibbon would be overjoyed to know that even the most speculative and unsupported of his historical insights are still alive and well hundreds of years after he authored them (although maybe Pullman just got the idea from the movie Agora). However upon closer examination this Library of Alexandria turns out to be the Serapeum temple whose colonnades seem to have contained a library at some stage (although this structure was left standing after the destruction and the sources for the event - both Pagan and Christian - do not mention any such libricide). Of course you can't rule out the destruction of sacred texts - something mentioned following similar events in Gaza in the 5th century - but Pullman appears to have conjured up 'hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship'; the most plausible estimate for the original library (not the Serapeum library) according to Dr Serafina Cuomo is 40,000 scrolls. Perhaps there are several kilometers of undiscovered book shelving lurking at the Serapeum's archeological site but more likely Pullman is talking out of his proverbial posterior. I am sympathetic with his article but it's hardly a good advert for the value of public learning when you can't be bothered to do the basic research.

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