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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

Glorious Receptacles of Knowledge and Soul Cures

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

This little essay was sparked when I caught a line from the radio that stated You Tube contains 41-years worth of viewing! I'm guessing that means if you watched, end-to-end, all those videos on how to change a tap washer, contour cheekbones, hold Webinars and/or make money on Amazon, you would complete the 'watch' 41 years older with perfect eyebrows and more information about the Kardashians than is decent.

Glorious receptacles of knowledge are great escape routes from a limited reality (Melburnians, I sympathise with you on your extended lock-down); 'libraries' of a wide variety – You Tube included – are the places to seek out that fiction or fact to help you push through imploding walls.

When I think of knowledge, and the knowledge management systems in which information is stored I must admit places full of books are my first love, though of course digital technology has allowed for far more efficient information classification and storage.

As technology has evolved, ways to impart knowledge have gone from pictures on cave walls and scratches in the earth, to oral communication, to hand written text, to printing presses, to digital technology including sound and image compression on hard drives and the cloud. These have usually contained the stuff we don’t want to forget, the stuff we want others to know and the stuff on which we can build. We also have the ability to push and pull information simultaneously from multiple sources across the globe, to cross-reference what we source, and to share our findings with others in less time than it took me to write this paragraph! The constant evolutionary journey of discovery and documentation is a truly great story ... and let’s never forget our heads in this ongoing refinement.

My favourite library in all the world – apart from my childhood family home where the walls were lined in books – is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Egypt. I visited in 2009. Not the original library of course, as this burnt to the ground somewhere round 48 BC; Julius Caesar often cited as accidentally burning it to the ground during a civil war (Oops!)

image: Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Egypt

Wikipedia (another fab, open-source knowledge receptacle) says of the library: “The Great Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. The Library was part of a larger research institution called the Mouseion, which was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts … The Library quickly acquired many papyrus scrolls, due largely to the king’s aggressive and well-funded policies for procuring texts. It is unknown precisely how many … scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.

The coolest thing about the library was the ‘tax’ it extracted from ships that wished to dock in Alexandria’s impressive harbour, frequently vessels of other nations. All visiting vessel had to give up their texts on reaching shore. The original texts were kept by the library and copies were speedily reproduced and returned to the owner. Now, that’s a strategic policy intent on ensuring your city’s intellectual property into the future.

Today, the library is a glorious, sleek granite building designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta, that houses so many treasures it is hard to imagine that the original could have been more magnificent. Though I am sure there are less papyrus scrolls (though I did see a few), it was a huge illustrated encyclopaedia of botanical specimens from the Napoleonic era that captured my fancy. With its coarse yellowed pages round 1 metre x 1 metre and illustrations and annotations, it was not only a scientific record but an extraordinarily beautiful work of art.

It is rumoured that carved into the shelves of the original library was an inscription that read:

The place of the cure of the soul.
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