Lessons from the Library

From the Pastor’s Study   (11/28/2021)

Recently I came across an old newspaper clipping containing a picture of my son at the Flat River Library.  A caption underneath noted that my sons visited the library weekly to check out books and to use the computers.  These regular visits to the library were actually an important part of my children’s home-school education.

The library is not a modern invention.  In fact, in ancient times, during the centuries known as the “Inter-testamental period,” a world famous library was founded in Alexandria in Egypt.  The Library of Alexandria was the vision of the Greek emperor, Alexander the Great, who wanted to establish a center of learning in this major port city that bore his name where the recorded knowledge of the world would be collected and studied. 

Although Alexander died before this ambition was realized, the library did become a reality.  Scrolls containing information on subjects as diverse as history, philosophy, mathematics, and natural science were assembled from around the known world.  Because Alexandria was a shipping center on the Mediterranean Sea, ships from across the western world would stop there.  Scrolls found on board would be confiscated and copied by scribes.  The copies would be returned to the ships, but the originals would be deposited in the library.  Also, hired agents were sent from Alexandria throughout the Mediterranean basin to locate and collect scrolls.  This collection of thousands of texts was a treasure trove of the knowledge of the ancient world. 

What exactly happened to the Library of Alexandria remains a mystery.  The most common theory is that when the Romans under Julius Caesar conquered Alexandria, the library was burned.  A second theory is that when rulers, religions, and cultures changed in Alexandria, the contents of the library were deemed offensive or threatening, and so were gradually destroyed.   Whatever the fate of the library was, there is no doubt that it existed.  But the collection of texts and much of the vast knowledge they contained is lost. 

Although the Library of Alexandria no longer exists, we can still learn from it.  One lesson is that disseminating knowledge rather than hoarding it is also the best way to preserve it.   Because the rulers of Alexandria were jealous of their library, and wanted no rivals, they prohibited the export of Egyptian papyrus that was used as paper to make scrolls.  Banning papyrus shipments would be equivalent to controlling the market on paper and ink or regulating what is published on media platforms.  In our country today there are no limits on the purchase of paper and ink, but there are those who with great effect control and censer what is published online.  Dissent from a particular political narrative, or asserting an unpopular point of view can result in being edited, banned, or “canceled” by powerful forces controlling internet platforms.  Investigation and the accumulation of knowledge is thus stifled. 

Another lesson is that eradicating records of past errors does not necessarily promote truth.  When the printed page, in the form of newspapers, magazines, and books, was the largest source of information, retractions, corrections, and further developments would be routinely published.  Today, instead of issuing retractions, media sources often go back and edit or delete older stories on the internet.  The errors of the past are vanished as if they never existed.  This is a mistake.  We learn from the past.  The Bible records the sinful failures of Israel “for our admonition.”  How poor we would be in spiritual wisdom if we did not have an inspired record of both successes and failures from which to learn.

In 1992 I visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem.  It is actually named the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.  The monstrous evil Jewish people suffered at the hand of Nazi Germany is memorialized there.  It should never be forgotten.  The history of truth and error should be documented, publicized, and studied.  Knowledge should be more than recorded – it should be disseminated. And we should resist modern infringements on freedom of speech and of the press.