Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Living Library of Alexandria


Image courtesy of Raphaelle Deslandes
Egyptian Alexandria became renown as the preeminent centre of learning in the Hellenic world. This was principally owing to the establishment of the Musaeum, the Institution of the Muses for the study of music, poetry, philosophy and other arts. The crown jewel of this complex was the Library of Alexandria that housed tens of thousands of scrolls, the greatest written collection of the Western world. As such, the Library of Alexandria remains at once a potent symbol of Classical knowledge and human achievement, as does its eventual destruction engulfed in flame serve as a portent for the decline of a decadent civilisation. The Library ceased to exist in the late Roman Imperial period and less than two centuries thereafter the Empire itself practically disintegrated.

Today we are the beneficiaries of the long recovery of the Classical by means of the universities initiated in the Late Medieval period in addition to the many libraries and museums established by governments for public benefit since the Renaissance as well as numerous private institutions that serve as centres for research and conservatories of typically more specialised areas of traditional knowledge. Nevertheless, there is a growing sentiment that at least in the area of traditional architecture and the allied arts this repository of knowledge is no longer secure in the aforementioned institutions. Certainly, in most university programmes Classical architecture and art, if considered at all, falls under the purview of history departments as something pertaining to a past that we've evolved beyond, of no practical benefit to the modern world. The few remaining programmes that promote Classical studies of architecture and art are coming under the critical scrutiny of equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives that reject the ethical values and formal aesthetic of the Classical, characterising it as either openly perpetuating privilege and entitlement, or alternatively implicitly and inherently disparaging of minority groups through microagression.

My own specialised interest lies in the conservation of traditional architectural knowledge, the allied arts & crafts, as well as any related disciplines that may be found among philosophy and the sciences. As such, I'm proposing a new mechanism for the conservation of traditional culture and transmission of Classical knowledge which is principally embodied in individuals: The Living Library of Alexandria. 

A Platform for Association

The concept of an society, a social club, a voluntary association of like-minded individuals is nothing new. In the past these tended to be more local in character; however, advances in transportation and notably technological communication has opened up the potential for such associations to include interested individuals from anywhere on the globe. I've participated in some early attempts at using technologies such as university listservs and various social media platforms for the discussion of traditional architecture. Whether or not each example is successful I expect must be assessed in light of the purpose for which they were created. To date it would appear their goals have been modest or nebulous. Notwithstanding, at least two things immediately become clear: there are technical limitations with those platforms and too frequently censorship has arisen as an issue. If the movement for conservation of the knowledge of traditional architecture and the allied arts & crafts is to be a coherent one then I believe it time to establish a network with a robust technical platform and a clearly structured purpose. In that spirit I would suggest a provisional purpose for such a platform: To serve as an global portal, institutionally and academically independent, for the sharing and promotion of the knowledge of traditional architecture, arts & crafts. 

The aforementioned I hope is a sufficiently broad description to facilitate a variety of common interests. What I would further propose is that built into the very structure of such a portal would be the goal of members physically or virtually meeting together on a regular basis. A version of this has already had several iterations. We'll stick with that name for the purposes of this essay: The Traditional Architecture Gathering or TAG. At this point I'll take a few moments to flesh out some preliminary ideas that I and other contributors have come up with regarding how each of these, the platform and the gathering, might be structured as well as relate to each other.

First, the online platform. One thing that has been readily agreed upon is that it ought to be truly independent. That rules out social media platforms that essentially own and sell your data. However, it also needs to be independent of academic institutions where the platform is the legitimate property of the institution that can (and do) censor at their pleasure. Furthermore, inevitable change within the administration could mean the unceremonious elimination of the platform altogether. 

Another consideration is the technical apparatus of the platform. Should it be a listserv, newsgroup, or some other perhaps more advanced programme? There seems to be broad consensus that whatever is decided upon should be able to facilitate the upload of high resolution images and large files more generally. 

The platform would serve a global community. Yet that probably would occur at different scales. Some conversations may pertain to architecture or craft generally and be of common, global interest. Other discussions may be better conducted to address regional concerns or for those who are fluent in a particular language. A structure tree would need to be considerately developed in a manner that can adequately address the diverse needs of the community.

Additionally, ground rules of association must be established. These need to be carefully thought through so as to avoid pitfalls of ad hominen attacks, religious sectarianism, or political partisanship undermining the capacity for debate and discussion. How members are inducted and the governance of the platform are related considerations.

A Time to Gather

Obviously there are already many institutions inside and outside of academia that are either directly or tangentially involved in the teaching or promotion of traditional architecture and the allied arts & crafts. Many of them already put on events, tours, educational programmes, etc. It is not unreasonable to question if we need yet another one or if our efforts are not better put to use in supporting what already exists. Not that I would see support for this type of new endeavour as a zero sum game; neverthess, perhaps a description of how earlier Traditional Architecture Gatherings enjoyed some unexpected success can show how they address different needs and the potential further development might realise.

The basis for the three TAG gatherings previously held were ongoing discussions on an university listserv with about 250 members. The gathering was restricted to those members so that the discussion would emerge from content that we all knew that we were current in. Furthermore, the agenda was not pre-conceived. Everyone was asked to keep in mind the subject they wished to be considered and bring it up for discussion. The gathering quickly was organised the first morning in a democratic process where the members made decisions of which sessions to attend from among what they themselves had proposed. There are a few principles from these gatherings that I'd like to suggest be continued.

The first principle was that of collegial inclusion: that everyone on the platform (in our case the listserv) was welcome. However, it implied a principle of exclusion: If you weren't on the platform, then you weren't conversant on the same topics so no matter how famous or entitled you were, you were out.

It was organised on the assumption that in this context, as students and professionals, we were meeting as equals, as members of the same platform, participants in the same conversations. Inspiration may come from any of us. In fact, due to the format much of the content came from those that typically never were otherwise afforded an opportunity. It ended up being an hierarchy-torching event.

There was no charge for attending. The hosts initially covered the costs of venue, refreshments, and meals. Donations were welcome and were made sufficient to reimburse those upfront costs. This allowed those of limited financial means, particularly but not exclusively students to attend. Every effort was made to be frugal. No fancy frills, folks were there for content and the association.

TAG is unique. There is no other grass roots, member-generated type of gathering within the traditional architecture, arts & crafts community. With a more robust platform that is global in outreach, the potential as an unifying tool is immense as is the opportunity for it becoming a means of substantive connection for  members to share and receive knowledge according to their interests across continents, economic, and social strata based on ongoing conversations all member have access to: a network conceived for the transmission of traditional knowledge by affording opportunities for people to speak and gather.

Although I'm personally a late adopter of technology (let's be honest, a Luddite), even I can see the value in some of the virtual conferencing technology still in its infancy. Not only can global TAGs be conducted on an annual basis but regional as well as language-based groups would have the opportunity to arrange their own gatherings as and when they see fit, virtually or in person. Undoubtedly, there are many ways in which these briefly considered concepts could be refined and expanded upon. I look forward to receiving input from the traditional architecture, arts & crafts community as to what they believe serves their common interests. With the understanding that so much of the traditional knowledge base is embodied in individuals, a living library will not be just another institution or in truth an institution at all. Rather it shall serve as a supportive mechanism akin to a room or house of exchange where those associated with a variety of institutions can converse, gather and where invaluable knowledge can be effectively transmitted.

Although this type of platform and the gatherings it supports can be accomplished frugally there are practical considerations of running costs for anything this robust. To maintain independence I think it must be privately funded by patronage. There has been interest expressed in this regard already. This is a fine example of where a modest investment can be leveraged to accomplish an incredible amount in addressing a pressing need. It is hardly unrealistic to foresee such a platform up in running in a few months, rapidly uniting individuals with common interests in traditional architecture, art, and craft across the globe and generating purposeful, goal-oriented gatherings within a year: at once a secure repository as well as a fountain of traditional knowledge exchange. 

The ancient Library of Alexandria was far more than its vast inventory; it served as an intellectual forum for the enrichment and transmission of Classical knowledge to subsequent generations. In fine, that Library served as a grand mechanism for culture. There exists a similar opportunity today to coalesce the Classical and traditional architectural, artistic, and craft wisdom embodied in individuals into a far-reaching civic forum. Just as the investments in creating that ancient library did not just benefit the city of Alexandria but reverberated throughout the entire empire and then down through time, similarly the establishment of such a Living Library of Alexandria today will not only be a matter of safeguarding knowledge, but disperses it to confront difficulties facing our global contemporary society, and places it at the disposal of humanity for untold generations to come.

Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. Is there a discussion group at the moment for others to get involved?
    I'd be interested to join and help to work on it as well!


    1. Unfortunately there really isn't. Hence the need for such a platform, to facilitate discussions just like this one. That said TAG 4 will be held the 26-28 of February where this topic is on the agenda. Schedule and details will be forthcoming.

    2. I could suggest a simple WhatsApp group where people can discuss. There can be an admin who can somewhat control the discussion to keep it on topic, and as a free app it really wouldn't have any costs besides a little bit of time to get the information out to those interested.