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Abstract:
Similarities between the ancient Library of Alexandria and the contemporary Baha'i archive.
Notes:

The International Bahá'í Library and the Library of Alexandria

by William P. Collins

published in Scriptum, 5
1996-07
The institution of the International Bahá'í Library has been described by the Universal House of Justice as: "the central depository of all literature published on the Faith"; "an essential source of information for the institutions of the World Centre on all subjects relating to the Cause of God and the conditions of mankind"; and, "in future decades its functions must grow, it will serve as an active centre for knowledge in all fields, and it will become the kernel of great institutions of scientific investigation and discovery."[1] The institution of the International Bahá'í Library -- the fruit of the evolution of the Bahá'í World Centre Library -- will be primarily a scholarly institution, not only because the beloved Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, called it a "House of Arts and Sciences" (Dár al-Funún va 'Ulúm), but also precisely because it is a library in every sense that the word implies, libraries being a subset of the category "scholarly institutions." Scholarly activity, from the time of the classical tradition of the Library of Alexandria to the present-day academic and research libraries, is the organic outgrowth and natural concomitant of having a rich and varied collection of human knowledge in published, electronic, audio-visual, networked, or manuscript form. Today, the Library of Congress, for instance, has a Council of Scholars composed of respected individuals in many fields, who advise the Librarian of Congress on the building of a strong collection to support scholarly research; who suggest programs for promoting the use of the materials retained in that great library; and who promote the publication of the results of research conducted there. It also has an arm called the Congressional Research Service, which maintains a staff of scholars whose sole purpose is the researching of policy issues for members of the United States Congress, and the preparation of abstracts and white papers on those policy issues, using the collections of the Library of Congress.

A library that is the object of a vision such as that of the International Bahá'í Library, is a library in the sense that it began with in Alexandria: as a repository of the world's knowledge, to which philosophers, kings and students come to enrich their wisdom and to share that wisdom with others. The scholarly activity is inextricably connected to the repository from which the scholar draws his material for study. The close proximity of the repository of knowledge, the place of study, and the seat of counsel within the institutions on the Arc on Mount Carmel, suggests strong parallels with the ancient Library of Alexandria. Indeed, just as the Bahá'í Faith teaches that the qualities of departed heroes can return, it seems likely that the qualities of an ancient institution can also "return." The Alexandriana, as it was called, seems the perfect visionary image to project onto the International Bahá'í Library and its potentially far-reaching activities.

The Alexandrian Library was part of the Museion (hence the modern English word "museum"). It was founded in the late 3rd century B.C. by Alexander the Great's successor Ptolemy Soter. The establishment of this institution was at the suggestion of Ptolemy's adviser, the Greek statesman Demetrios of Phaleron. The Museion's name derived from the nine Muses -- the goddesses who inspire all the arts and sciences. The mother of the Muses was Mnemosyne (Memory). The Muses were Calliope ("she of the beautiful voice", patron of epic poetry); Clio ("the proclaimer", patron of history); Erato ("the lovely", patron of lyric poetry); Euterpe (patron of tragedy and flute playing); Melpomene (patron of tragedy and lyre playing); Polymnia (patron of dancing and geometry); Terpsichore (patron of lyric poetry and dancing); Thalia (patron of comedy, and one of the three Graces); Urania (patron of astronomy). It is a tribute to the foresight of Demetrios of Phaleron and his monarch that they understood for the first time in history that Hellenic civilization's glory lay in its accumulated knowledge and the productive capacity of its learned and its scholars. The Museion was therefore designed to sit amid gardens and pleasant surroundings, near a major temple and the tomb of the empire's founder, Alexander himself. The Museion included meeting halls, study chambers, dining and sleeping facilities.

The greatest adjunct to the Museion was its library, which at its height may have contained upwards of 700,000 scrolls. The library's collections included the library of Aristotle. The collections were continually augmented by scrolls that were collected, borrowed from other libraries and copied, or expropriated from ships. The library is reported to have contained every known Greek work in all branches of knowledge, and many works in Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Persian.

The Alexandriana was more than a collection of scrolls. The scholars of the institution conducted original research and contributed to the contents of the library through their own writings (for example, Eratosthenes, one of the librarians, discovered the correct method for determining the circumference of the earth); invented and developed the science of classification and cataloguing (particularly the librarian named Callimachus); edited texts and fixed the canons of literature; defined the science of bibliography.

Seeing the International Bahá'í Library and the Alexandrian Library in juxtaposition, there is an analogous cultural significance, and a mythological significance to the relationship. The Library of Alexandria was the first library of universal knowledge. In this Day of God, the culmination of all previous spiritual history, the International Bahá'í Library is to become a universal repository of knowledge. Just as the Museion was the incubator for scholarly musings and the joy of learning, so the International Bahá'í Library will be a place of scholarly discourse and discovery. It is interesting that the Museion, dedicated to the nine divine inspirers of art and science, should be reflected today in the Arc on Mount Carmel, from which the Lord of the Age, Whose numerical symbol is 9, will transform the world through His institutions. Among those institutions is that International Bahá'í Library, referred to by Shoghi Effendi as the "House of Arts and Sciences" -- an institution inspired by the Muses. It is perhaps no mere happenstance that the physical edifices housing Bahá'u'lláh's institutions are in classical Greek style, set amid pleasant gardens, near the tombs of the Faith's Founders and in the seat of Bahá'í governance. They echo from the past the halcyon days of Hellenic civilization when divers cultures were united through a universal culture and language.

The image of the ancient world's greatest library is an inspiring vision for the monumental library in this era of humanity's coming of age. There can be no greater paean to learning than this exciting connection of past to future. The noble profession of librarianship can regain some of its diminishing lustre from such an analog, for librarians should be, in training, character and deed, kin to those shining Alexandrian lights who made the world bright with knowledge and wisdom. It was, after all, a Callimachus who taught us how to classify, and it was an Eratosthenes who taught us that we can measure the world.
    1. Universal House of Justice, letter to Bahá'ís throughout the world, dated 31 August 1986.
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