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In praise of libraries

  • 01 May 2023
At Easter time I went cycling along the former spur line from Yea to Alexandra. Over creeks and rivers, through tunnels and up steep gradients. Alexandra is a small Victorian town, founded during the nineteenth century gold rush. On the corner of the street leading into the town is a library, decoratively designed in the early years of settlement, with its title embossed in stone: Alexandra Free Library.

The library evoked the memory of its near namesake, identical but for its additional ego, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. It was founded in the third century BC by the Ptolemies. It was said variously to house 40,000 or 400,000 papyrus books, collected throughout the Ancient World by well-funded agents. The library included working and conversational space for visiting scholars who were paid, housed and fed by the Library. The Ptolemies’ ambition was to gather all the written wisdom of the contemporary world. The Library had declined by the first century BC, and was damaged twice in war. Its fate reminds us of the longer-term human cost of war.

That the Alexandra Library was free recalls a time when citizens valued and invested in knowledge and education as a service to the whole community.  It was echoed in the movement for universal education and in Mechanics institutes and other similar enterprises. It stands in judgment over our own day when local libraries and community centres are often underfunded or centralised, and when local communities lack a space where their historical documents and images are held. Books are now published by international companies for purely economic considerations and public archives are neglected.

And yet, like the early and present-day citizens of Alexandra, local communities still value culture. Their library endures. Elsewhere the university of the Third Age, local galleries, museum, local poets and musicians are inheritors of the Free Library. Where have you found its equivalent today?  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.