The New Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Alexandria: A beacon of knowledgeAlmost 2,300 years ago the Egyptian city of Alexandria boasted one of the greatest forums of ideas, knowledge and memory of all times, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The library survived troubled centuries but was finally destroyed during Roman rule late in the 3rd century AD. The library contained more than half a million, mainly Greek, volumes. Although the library and its invaluable contents were destroyed, the memory of the ancient world's unique storehouse of learning lived on, along with dreams of its revival.
The revival of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina began in Egypt in the mid-1970s and was eventually internationally embraced. UNESCO organized an architectural competition and awarded the honor to the Norwegian firm Snøhetta in 1988. In 1990 UNESCO's International Commission for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria expressed a formidable vision for the new library:
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina will stand as a testimony to a decisive moment in the history of human thought - the attempt to constitute a summum of knowledge, to assemble the writings of all the peoples. It will bear witness to an original undertaking that, in embracing the totality and diversity of human experience, became the matrix for a new spirit of critical inquiry, for a heightened perception of knowledge as a collaborative process.
Censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history. In ancient societies, for example China, censorship was considered a legitimate instrument for regulating the moral and political life of the population. The origin of the term censor can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome i 443 BC. In Rome, as in the ancient Greek communities, the ideal of good governance included shaping the character of the people. Hence censorship was regarded as an honourable task. In China, the first censorship law was introduced in 300 AD.
Censorship: A Global and Historical Perspective This is true Liberty when free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv's high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What can be juster in a State then this?
Perhaps the most famous case of censorship in ancient times is that of Socrates, sentenced to drink poison in 399 BC for his corruption of youth and his acknowledgement of unorthodox divinities. It is fair to assume that Socrates was not the first person to be severely punished for violating the moral and political code of his time. This ancient view of censorship, as a benevolent task in the best interest of the public, is still upheld in many countries, for example China. This notion was advocated by the rulers of the Soviet Union (USSR), who were responsible for the longest lasting and most extensive censorship era of the 20th Century.
The struggle for freedom of expression is as ancient as the history of censorship. The playwright Euripides (480-406 BC) defended the true liberty of freeborn men—the right to speak freely. Nevertheless, he was careful to point out that free speak was a choice.
Free speech: A Challenge to Religious Power in Europe
Free speech, which implies the free expression of thoughts, was a challenge for pre-Christian rulers. It was no less troublesome to the guardians of Christianity, even more so as orthodoxy became established. To fend off a heretical threat to Christian doctrine church leaders introduced helpful measures, such as the Nicene Creed, promulgated in 325 AD. This profession of faith is still widely used in Christian liturgy today. As more books were written and copied and ever more widely disseminated, ideas perceived as subversive and heretical were spread beyond the control of the rulers. Consequently, censorship became more rigid, and punishment more severe.
The invention of the printing press in Europe in the mid 15th century, only increased the need for censorship. Although printing greatly aided the Catholic Church and its mission, it also aided the Protestant Reformation and "heretics", such as Martin Luther. Thus the printed book also became a religious battleground.
Why Document Censorship?
Most countries in the world have a history of censorship. Although most countries also keep records of their censorship, the detailed information is not always easily available, at least not to the general public. The reasons may be many, from lack of funds to make the data accessible, to lost records or reluctance on the part of the authorities responsible for censorship.
Why should records of censorship be publicly available? The obvious answer is that history may teach us (authorities included) not to repeat mistakes of the past. But other reasons are also pertinent, for one, the principle of transparency. Detailed records of censorship tell their own stories, sometimes of the extreme zealousness of censoring bureaucrats or the deliberate destruction of a people's language and cultural heritage.
Making public the hidden records of censorship was also important to the Beacon for Freedom of Expression project for another reason; the detailed records would represent a symbolic monument to the many writers that were silenced throughout history, their literary works often lost forever.
Finding historical records on censorship
The historical records on censored or prohibited books and newspapers are often held by government bodies or university and national libraries. In 1997-98, the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (NFFE) conducted a world-wide survey of international and national government agencies, national libraries, academic institutions, and human rights organizations among others, to map the state of available records of censored printed material, and also to establish partnerships.
The response to the project and to the invitation of cooperation was indeed positive. Nevertheless, the state of complete and available records of censorship varied greatly amongst continents and countries. NFFE found that in far too many cases, information only existed on paper lists or in manual archives. This was indeed the situation in many libraries in countries that had recently emerged from the extensive and strict censorship of the former USSR. More surprisingly, in some countries even centuries-old censorship remained a sensitive issue, mainly for government bodies, but occasionally also for libraries.
Based on results of the survey and the response from partners, NFFE began collecting detailed historical data on censored books and newspapers, and detailed data on publications concerning aspects of censorship and freedom of expression historically, from national and international sources.
Collecting all relevant data from countries was an immensely demanding task for all parties involved. The risk of not achieving this goal was great in a number of countries, so NFFE selected 30 countries from different continents to document censored books and newspapers through the ages. NFFE provided the administration and funded all basic costs for making the data available in English on the Beacon for Freedom of Expression website, recognizing that the cost of transferring paper archives of forbidden literature to online databases would be impossible for many a library or organization to undertake alone. NFFE worked in close cooperation with the information providers through the whole process. The experiences gathered during the process were used to adjust future methods of data collection and collaboration.
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