“Bibliopocalypse”, por R. David Lankes

R. David Lankes*, director da Escola de Biblioteconomia e Ciência da Informação da Universidade da Carolina do Sul (Estados Unidos da América), aceitou o desafio proposto pelo Bibliotecas são Comunidades em imaginar um mundo sem bibliotecas. Eis o resultado.


Dürers, Albrecht. Die Offenbarung des Johannes: 4. Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter, 1497-1498.


Here’s what David Gonçalves asked me to write on: “The theme of the text is to imagine a world without libraries. The aim is to demonstrate the importance of libraries and how much we depend on them.”

He did not realize that this is a dangerous question for me. You see I am a science fiction fan, and I have a special affinity for alternative history fiction. You know, what would the world look like if the Roman Empire had discovered electricity, or the great Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder1, the origin of the phrase “butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect in science being the way a very small event (or change) can lead to a cascade of events and have an enormous impact2. So a butterfly flapping it’s wings in South America leading to a monsoon in the Pacific.

So, I could write about the question what if the kings and queens of ancient Alexandria didn’t create a library. The Library of Alexandria was far from the first library in history, but it retains a special place in the minds of the public. The Great Library of Alexandria was a wonder of the ancient world that sought to collect the knowledge of the world. The great library that sent guards to meet incoming trade ships and confiscate any documents to be copied…the reproductions returned to the ships. The great library that was burned by invading armies.

I could write about how the documents wouldn’t be gathered, and therefore would never be dispersed throughout the ancient world. The knowledge of generations would not eventually find their way to Muslim Spain, and then, through the crusades, brought into the medieval Europe and city states of Florence. Without the rediscovery of the architecture and engineering of Greece, Italian tradesmen would not create the earliest universities, not create a neoclassical movement in art that would advance engineering and architecture3 in what we now call the Renaissance. Without the Renaissance in Italy, it would not spread throughout the west…thus allowing thriving cultures in the now “undiscovered” Americas or Asia to advance and eventually colonize Western Europe4.

Of course, many scholars believe that the Library of Alexandria was far from this image of a great building with scrolls beyond numbers. One history tells of a campus, the first building on that campus being a temple dedicated to the Muses – the origin of the word Museum5. The other buildings were dormitories and the library itself was an early version think tank that brought together scholars and great thinkers around the known world. They collaborated, argued, and invented. Great ideas were written down with the scrolls stored in the museum. It was a living place.

And the end of the library? Probably not fires of an invader6. Possibly a natural disaster, but even more likely a result of slow economic decline7. The knowledge of the library was never in the scrolls and documents. Knowledge never wrests in inanimate object, but in humans. The great diaspora might well have included documents being spirited away, but more important was the diaspora of scholars. The work of the library finding fertile ground in India, and later the Iberian Peninsula where scholars developed Algebra and advanced mathematics8.

When the Crusaders invaded the Moorish cities, like Toledo, in the 11th century they did indeed find massive libraries. A single library held more volumes than in the entirety of France at the time. But these weren’t vaults or document crypts. The libraries were resources for the development of great engineering and advancements in astronomy, religion, philosophy, and science.

When those documents were brought back to the wealthy of Florence, they came with Jewish scholars who could translate the work and became the precursors for professors in universities. My point, back to the topic at hand, is that libraries have always been about people connecting to people – knowledge is thinking in action, not something that can be contained, bound, and distributed. Simply burning down the library didn’t stop the advance of civilization.9

So if I were to write an alternative history that stopped the development of libraries, leading to a Western Europe full of monks with too much time on their hands, and a decaying infrastructure with people living in, at times quite literally, the ruins of previous Roman glory waiting for their Asian or American invaders, I would need to prevent more than the construction of a building. I would need to stop the kings and queens of Alexandria from being curious, or in seeing the value in scholarship.

But I don’t think an alternative ancient history is what David had in mind. It might take a few hundred pages to get to a modern time. Maybe something more recent?

How about looking at the end of World War II? The bloody war that set Allies against Axis was many things, including the real birth of the information age. Many may be familiar with Turing10 or the development of the first “practical” binary computer11. However, a broader view sees these as the product of a scientific race for supremacy. German engineers against US Scientists (many immigrants from fascism) racing to develop new means of warfare including the development of the atomic bomb.

I could reimagine the end of the war when in reality Soviets and Americans raced through Germany capturing Nazi scientists and giving them new lives in Russia and the United States12. I could reimagine how both nations established systems to collect and distribute scientific information. In the Soviet era perhaps, I could change the decision to centralize the accumulation of scientific papers and tightly control distribution of them. Perhaps I could imagine if they had designed a system closer to the US system of distributing scientific advancement and communications to universities and research centers. I could imagine a modern Soviet state that built an academic and governmental system of libraries that supported publication, sharing networks for documents, and a modern librarianship that supported reference, interlibrary loan, and wide access to materials?

What would the European and US look like if the Allies had instead of investing in libraries, decided that a more “pure” capitalistic model of information as capital should prevail? If instead of subsidizing the production and distribution of scholarship through libraries and information centers that employed an army of catalogers, lexicographers, and indexers, the government withdrew, allowing private industry to become the sole custodians of scholarship? Would we have the Internet today if the government hadn’t funded universities with their libraries to develop new telecommunications infrastructure? Would we have a World Wide Web if the European Union hadn’t funded CERN and their library who hired Tim Berners-Lee13? Would we have a web if Berners-Lee didn’t have a problem of linking digital physics articles openly available around the globe? Would the proprietary networks like American Online and Compuserve ever have adopted open principles that sparked innovation?

Still, I’m not sure anyone wants to read and story of brave freedom fighters fighting the Soviet state by faxing each other messages with a war cry that sounds remarkably like the whistles and crackle of a 300 baud modem connecting through an acoustic coupler.

I’ll spare you the scenarios of a failed social movement in the US that links the rise of public education and the public library14. Or if Andrew Carnegie had decided to keep his wealth15 or if Victorian England had not buoyed their public libraries as an alternative to Public Houses.

I could take a totally different approach. Instead of seeing this as an exercise in fiction, I could adopt the premise of Alan Weisman’s fantastic book The World Without Us16. In the book Wiseman simply ignores the reason people disappear, instead running through the consequences if people just literally vanished one day. What would happen to our Nuclear Reactors (not too much initially and then radioactive slag poisoning the world), our homes (not pretty), and so on.

So, what if all the libraries simply disappeared tomorrow? There are certainly indicators that we would have some economic issues with the disappearance of a $40 billion plus industry.17 An industry that in North America, at least, is a proven economic generator for cities. In 2007 the state of Indiana alone received $2.38 in direct economic benefits for each dollar of cost18. Public library salaries and expenditures generated an additional $216 million in economic activity and academic library salaries and expenditures generated an additional $112 million in economic activity. Across the northern border “Toronto Public Library creates over $1 billion in total economic impact19.”

Authors and publishers would lose a massive amount of money and audience without libraries to showcase their work and build audiences. Businesses would lose access to library special library services like patent examination, competitive intelligence, trademark searching, and corporate training.

Of course, monetary value is only one way to value the contributions of libraries. The disappearance of libraries in countries worldwide would create a massive hole in the collection, preservation, and dissemination of the cultural record. Where one day publishers of the world were required to submit manuscripts to National Libraries20, now all titles availability would be at the mercy of a market place.

Works without a wide-spread appeal would simply vanish or not be published in the first place. Without academic libraries, many who now run university presses that could no longer survive alone in the market, deep dives on topics in history, literature, and philosophy would simply disappear21. Vital works that document the development of societies would become unfindable. Invaluable historical treasures would succumb to the ravages of time and literally dissolve to dust. With the disappearance of the Vatican Library, for example, a significant percentage of all manuscripts produced in the first century AD would be gone22. Not only that, but a massive hole would stand where the Vatican maintained an enormous, liquid cooled petabyte data center where ancient manuscripts and materials from the world over were digitized23.

Across the Atlantic in Cambridge, the loss of the law library at Harvard University is a loss not only for lawyers in the states, but for many countries that use the library as their official legal depository…in essence the official holder of the laws for these countries.

Aside from collections the people of the earth would lose one of the last truly public space left. In Scandinavia more than 50% of people going to libraries do not do so to find a book24. They are meeting, talking, working in makerspaces to develop new products. Around the world public library community members are using recording studies to create videos25, podcasts, and whole albums26. They are bringing their children to story hours to enhance literacy skills. They are using resources to look for jobs. In higher education with more and more courses and degrees available online, they are using public libraries to connect to classes and academic libraries for resources. Libraries in elementary and secondary schools are the home for information literacy curriculum fighting the tide of fake news and deliberate misinformation campaigns by nation states.

But as I said when talking about the Ancient Library of Alexandria, libraries of all types are about people – librarians and those that they serve. With the loss of libraries, one would assume the loss of librarians (at least as a profession – I don’t want to be morbid). And here is where the real pain would be felt. Because all of those manuscripts in the Vatican; all of those law books in Harvard; all of the documents in ancient Toledo and Alexandria would be of limited use without a corps of dedicated professionals27 ensuring access to resources, but more importantly, binding together communities.

A room full of books – even books written on the skin of cows a thousand years ago – is a warehouse. It takes people to not only organize and preserve those books (and videos and music and paintings and trains-yes there is a train library of trains-and building materials28 and looms and fishing poles29 and costumes), but to weave together a community.

In towns and colleges and city halls and corporate offices librarians are putting their core beliefs into action. They are fighting for the right of privacy in an era of monetized data where business models sell personal information for advertising dollars. They are fighting to reform a scientific publishing process that threatens to bankrupt universities30. Librarians are working directly with doctors and medical researchers to ensure patient safety31.

In Aarhus, Denmark the Dokk1 library rings a bell with every birth in the city32. They are in essence welcoming the newborns into a community. In Kenya librarians use camels to bring learning and support to remote villages where access the modern libraries of Nairobi is impossible33. In Brazil librarians leave libraries to set up pop-up libraries on beaches and go into favelas to work directly with the poorest citizens34. In the hills of Colombia Luis Soriano brings reading and education to the children via the Biblioburro35 – his two donkeys Alfa and Beto.

But of course, all of this is an exercise in imagination. There are libraries in the world and librarians to build and mange them. Libraries have been around for millennia and will be with us for many more to come…right? Only if we all chose to ensure the benefits of libraries through real action. In England years of austerity funding is leading to local councils either closing libraries or eliminating staff in favor of volunteers36. Across the US schools are eliminating school library positions in the face of increased standardized testing and less critical thinking37. For profit universities are created without academic libraries to foster student exploration, favoring instead pre-digested reading packets.

So here is the most dystopian science fiction scenario I can present. The world is without libraries because too many privileged people’s idea of a library is 20 years out of date. The populace sees libraries as book palaces instead of community hubs ensuring learning and a voice for all. A world without librarians acting as an advocate for the common good in an information space dominated by commercial interests that productize our lives. A world where governments are not held to account because a civic institution dedicated to transparency is silenced. A world without memory or history, replaced instead by clickbait and access controlled by the privileged.

*Para comprar os livros de R. David Lankes: https://www.wook.pt/autor/r-david-lankes/722315

3 Inspired by James Burke’s the Day the Universe Changed…historical erros my own: https://archive.org/details/thedaytheuniversechanged2medievalconflictsfaithandreason

4 Idea inspired by Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus

5  Murray, S. A., (2009). The library: An illustrated history. New York: Skyhorse Publishing

7 Casson, Lionel (2001), Libraries in the Ancient World, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-09721-4

9 Ibid Burke and The Day the Universe Changed.

18 Indiana State Library. (2007). The economic impact of libraries in Indiana. Retrieved from http://www.ibrc.indiana.edu/studies/EconomicImpactofLibraries_2007.pdf

20 For example, see the Library of Congress https://www.copyright.gov/mandatory/index.html

21 This new relationship between press and library is not always seen as a positive development. Here are two different perspectives: https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/07/19/revisiting-two-perspectives-library-based-university-presses/

24 As reported at the Next Conference in Aarhus, Denmark.

27 The modern professionalization of librarians began with associations and labor movements in the 19th century. However, the idea of a librarian has existed for many centuries.

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