Year 2 / Issue 18 / Destruction of Libraries and Retrogression of Human Progress / Dr Ezzat Mossallanejad

Destruction of Libraries and Retrogression of Human Progress

By Ezat Mossallanejad and Alison Mills



During the last few days, I have visited dozens of friendly circles in different communities and intellectual agencies. Wherever I went, I observed an unprecedented panic about the possible decision of Mayor Rob Ford and his City council to close down library branches in Toronto. Some of my clients were shocked by the news. They told me that as newcomers to Canada, they considered the local library as their home, their sacred place of refuge, a welcoming place for learning, a safe space for inter-cultural communication, and an excellent atmosphere for children. “Without library’” a newcomer friend told me, “my life becomes barren and I have to suffer from the agony of loneliness.” Another friend told me, “To survive we need food, both material and intellectual; it is through the libraries that we can get the latter.”


Appreciation of libraries is related to the needs of intellectual minds for collection, preservation and dissemination of knowledge. It goes back to early human history when a good section of temples were used as libraries and monks acted as the first librarians. Intellectual kings were also great protagonists of libraries. Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, blossomed as the cradle of the ancient civilization for 5000 years due to the scholarly works of the people’s knowledge presented in its libraries. Ashurbanipal (685-625 BCE), the last great king of Assyria, had a library in his palace that contained 22,000 books. The library was open to the public. The Egyptian Pharaoh of the 19th dynasty Ramses I (13th century BCE) referred to the library in the temple of his place as the “sanatorium of soul”. During the Achmaenid Dynasty of Persia, a library was built in the best section of the royal palace, Persepolis.


The ups and downs in the history of the great library of Alexandria have brought periods of honor and shame in ancient history.  The Royal Library of Alexandria was the largest library of the ancient time. It was founded by the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) and flourished under the Ptolemaic dynasty. These intellectual Greek rulers of Egypt spent a fortune and sent their agents across the globe to buy books for the library. The Alexandra library contained 500,000 books. It offered grants to scholars in different fields. The library contributed towards great progress in chemistry, physics, mechanics, anatomy, astronomy, medicine as well as different fields of arts, literature and philosophy.


When the Alexandria library was burned by the Roman conqueror Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, few people understood the dept of a catastrophe that was looming upon Egypt: the captivity of human knowledge in the abyss of obscurantism.  It took time and huge efforts for scholars to build a "daughter library" in a temple in another section of Alexandria. This was also burned in 389 C.E by the fanatical Roman emperor Theodosius.

 A great scholar of the era, Hypatia, made a heroic endeavor to rebuild the library. She became the first and the last female librarian of this ancient centre of scientific knowledge. As the most brilliant mathematician, philosopher and woman of letter, she made a genuine effort to reach people who came to Alexandria from remote areas to share her wisdom. A mob of Christian monks, who approached scientific knowledge as the heritage of paganism, flayed Hypatia and burned her alive in 415 CE. This posed a big setback to scientific progress; it was actually the beginning of the dark ages, and it engulfed the entire Western world like a sinister specter. The last blow to the library of Alexandria came in 646 CE when Moslem conquerors burned what had been left of the library. According to the historian Al-Baghdadi the books were used as fuel for boiling water at all the public bathrooms of Alexandria for duration of six months.

Hatred for books and libraries as such did not allow cultural progress in any part of the then Islamic world. It took decades for Moslems to overcome their initial dogmatism. It was not until the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun (813-833 CE) that the Moslems learned the value of libraries. Ma’mun sponsored a public library par excellence in its time. It contained books in different languages. It was the beginning of the golden age of Islamic civilization and the great discoveries of Moslems in a time that Europe was suffering the medieval darkness and Inquisition.

The Moslems’ leap forward in science and technology happened during the 10th and 11th century CE as a result of Moslems’ tremendous respect for books and libraries. The Iranian Monarch Azad Dowleh Deilami (907-982 CE) established a library in Shiraz that contained at least one copy of all books that were available in the civilized world. A group of professional librarians were always available to help readers.

 The Umayyad caliphs of Al-Andalus (today’s Spain) were great proponents of books and libraries. During the ruling of the Cordoba caliph Al-Hakam II (961-976 CE) the library of Cordoba contained 400,000 books with an index of 40 volumes. He sent experts to Syria and Baghdad to purchase books. It was in this library that scores of books were translated from Hebrew, Greek and Latin into Arabic by a joint committee of Moslem, Christian and Jewish scholars.  Libraries also flourished during the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt (961-1171 CE). In the same period there was a library in Basra (Iraq) that provided grants to scholars.

According to some authentic documents, there were thousands of books in the library of Rey in the North of Iran (more than 400 camels were needed to load the books). Scholars rallied together in the library hall to discuss and collaborate in different disciplines. It was in this library that the great Iranian scientist and philosopher, Razi (865-925 CE) accomplished most of his work including exploring sulfuric acid and writing books on pediatrics, medicine, chemistry and philosophy.

The second Caliph of the 12th century Beber dynasty of Almohad Abu Yaqub (1135-1184 CE), who ruled Morocco and part of Spain, spent fortunes in building libraries and sponsoring the most knowledgeable persons of his time. He brought the great philosopher Ibn Tufail (1105-1185 CE) from Al-Andalos to his royal court. Ibn Tuail introduced Averroes (1126-1198) to the great ruler. Both philosophers worked extensively on Greek philosophy in general and particularly that of Aristotle in the royal library.  It was through the Latin translations of their epoch-making work that the Greek heritage in science and philosophy reached the West and ushered the era of the Renaissance. Following the death of Abu Yaqub, his son burned royal and all libraries and sent Avarroes to exile. This lunatic action plunged his territory into a heavy darkness for centuries.


The great intellectual minds of the Renaissance began hunting manuscripts of the Greek, Roman and Oriental antiquity in neglected libraries of Europe. Through the translation of great works of the past in these libraries, they contributed towards the development of science and technology that has evolved uninterruptedly up until the present time. Unfortunately, when the West awakened through books and libraries, the Moslem world went into an intellectual coma due to the prevalence of feudalistic tyranny, domestic feuds and later their colonial enslavement by the West. 


In a nutshell, whatever a nation has invested on books and libraries, it has received back in its future life.  Any attempt to destroy libraries would be a fatal disservice to the development of human progress. The poisonous impacts of such a decision would greatly affect future generations.  The closure of libraries is a reminiscence of the book burning tradition of the Medieval Era that set the clocks of human advancement irreparably back. It deprives the population, especially the youth, from having a safe place for creative thoughts and cultural innovations. At the least, it leads to philistinism and increased shallowness of the future generation. At the most, it results in higher rates of juvenile delinquency and the replacement of libraries with jails, detention centers and reformatories. It ultimately results in more costs and a heavier penalty for tax payers.


For the people of Toronto, the public library is an irreplaceable source of information and resources and is a safe and accessible space for learning and self-improvement. More privileged local residents with access to the Internet may turn to Google more often than not for information. However, as high school teachers and university professors alike often attest, the Internet can provide very poor quality of information. Users need to develop the ability to critique and verify sources and it is difficult and time consuming to navigate. It is incomparable with the assistance a trained librarian can offer in accessing high quality, accurate information.


In closing Toronto libraries, Mayor Ford would be choosing to ignore the needs of the poorest in the city – those that cannot afford such luxuries as a computer and Internet access, those with no extra funds for post-secondary education or other academic upgrading, those who are new to Canada who require ESL resources and who benefit from conversation circles at the library, those high school students who cannot study at home and who cannot afford to pay for coffee every time they need to complete their homework.


From both global historical and local contemporary perspectives, the preservation of libraries must be a priority. All evidence shows that the closure of public libraries would be a detriment to the development and empowerment of children, youth, adults and seniors of the City of Toronto.