The long history of libraries extends to 3rd millennium BC – and coincides with systematic accumulation of writing. The Sumerian library of clay tablets in Mesopotamia is probably the oldest example, but ancient libraries in Alexandria and Constantinople are best known and admired - both destroyed in 48 and 473 respectively.

Eagle Owl
Eagle Owl Image: James King
© Australian Museum

It is believed that many books and manuscripts were copied and thus their content preserved in other ancient and subsequently Christian and Islamic centres of learning, while the copies formed the body of new libraries. However specialists are justified in lamenting destruction of any significant library, because a library is not just a transferable collection of written materials but a historical heritage where objects containing human ideas form a ‘collection’ – a unique monument of intellectual endeavour in its specific time and place.

The scourge of war and fire as well as ideological fanaticism that plagued libraries for millennia is never far away. But now the rapidly unfolding digital age brings new challenges to libraries. If it was no more than a service provider – a pool of human knowledge and literary content - then we could probably just digitise everything and close the libraries. But the digital content – an image - with all its rapid access and convenience is more a form of communication rather than the mode of ‘being.’

A library is more like a museum and art gallery than the Gutenberg Project or Wikipedia. The dual role of a library as a museum and provider of digital content makes it vulnerable in times of ‘rationalist’ dogma. When many historical libraries disappear and their collections are dispersed, the few remaining specialised libraries will acquire enormous additional heritage significance.

The Australian Museum’s Research Library is one of Australia’s earliest specialised collections of its kind. I found an interesting parallel in the Peruvian Andes. In the small village of Ocopa (25 km from Huancayo) is a Franciscan Convent and Seminary established in 1725. Its library is a priceless and a unique repository of history, nature and culture from the colonial and republican era. With over 25,000 volumes it developed through exploration and study of the natural history and indigenous cultures of Peruvian tropical selva (forest) in the western Amazon basin. And it is a museum as well with sample specimens, objects of art, maps and scientific instruments.

Our Research Library has less historical decorum than Ocopa but has a similar broad scientific and cultural heritage purpose in studying nature and culture of our region. I hope that in our collective prudence we will find the way to retain and nurture this unique specialised heritage for the future, when material objects – in contrast to digital representation – become rare and priceless.