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From Alexandria to the Internet

by Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-393-06506-0
Publisher: Norton

An intelligent, provocative history of institutions that preserve and disseminate information.

McNeely and Wolverton (History/Univ. of Oregon) discuss six, beginning with the library. The great library founded in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century BCE was actually a break with tradition, they note. Ancient Greek society was based on oral traditions, and not everyone was in favor of collecting written knowledge. Books are untrustworthy, Socrates insisted, because their contents are detached from the actions, honor and character of whoever wrote them. He wasn’t entirely wrong, the authors maintain. Readers often grant undeserved authority to the written word, and even today nonsense competes with wisdom in all assemblies of information, the Internet most of all. On the other hand, writing is durable, so libraries caught on. In chronological order, the narrative moves on to the monastery, the university, the Republic of Letters, the disciplines and the laboratory. While other writers extol monasteries for preserving ancient texts during the Dark Ages, McNeely and Wolverton point out that monks devoted almost all their copying to Christian documents; the Islamic culture that arose after 600 CE did a better job of preserving ancient classics. The first universities, products of increasing prosperity in the 12th century, were simply urban collections of scholars and students; hundreds of years passed before construction produced the great institutions that remain today. Universities combined with moveable type and the Renaissance after 1450 to produce the Republic of Letters, an explosion of humanist thinkers who exchanged information throughout Europe in their common language, Latin. So much knowledge had accumulated by the 18th century that serious academics had to specialize and hence, the disciplines appeared. Throughout history, educated men studied what was already known; the Enlightenment launched a revolution with writers and scientists who took an interest in new knowledge. Laboratories produced a trickle then an avalanche of technical breakthroughs accompanied by a mass of information and information technology that today threatens to overwhelm us.

Stimulating and witty—intellectual entertainment at its best.