Rachel Caine on Why Libraries Matter

If you’re a book lover, you’re a library lover — because there’s nothing better than free books for all, right? (Thanks, Ben Franklin!) Rachel Caine knows this, and in fact her latest, RT Top Pick! Ink and Bone, takes place in an alternate world where the Great Library of Alexandria was never destroyed. Imagine being able to visit? (We’re swooning just thinking about it. Forget it, Grand Canyon. Sorry, Eiffel Tower!) Tell us more, Rachel!

There’s something about the Great Library at Alexandria that has captivated us for a long time … maybe it’s the mythic nature of the place, the location, the loss we still feel keenly echoing through the ages. But what I found, when reading in depth about the Library in the course of my research for my book Ink and Bone was a very real place, even more fabulous and strange I ever suspected.

Alexandria was a deliberately constructed city — rare in the ancient world — and held what is still listed as one of the seven wonders, the Lighthouse of Pharos. That enormous structure wouldn’t have been possible without the scientific, technological and scholarly infrastructure that existed in that city along with the Great Library, the even larger university complex and the brainpower both institutions drew from all corners of the earth.

Yet all wasn’t shiny marble and gold in that ancient city. In an age when written information existed in no more than a handful of copies, at best, it was an enormous challenge to amass a central cache like the one at the Great Library, and it wasn’t all done honestly. Travelers and ships were searched, original manuscripts were confiscated — and often never returned. It was an amazing, seemingly altruistic institution built on informational piracy, which is a fascinating way to look at something that seems so … legendary.

The Library was the first to innovate many concepts familiar to us to this day, including branch libraries that allowed the general public access to precious, fragile written knowledge. It was also the first known to allow women to study freely alongside men. 

We’ll never know for certain what might have happened had the great works of the Library not perished in fires, disasters and riots. Scholars fled an increasingly unfriendly city. Other wonderful libraries, like the Xianyang Palace in China, the Library of Antioch, the Library of Constantinople, the Madrassa Library of Grenada were all destroyed, their works scattered and lost. The invention of the printing press slowed the bleeding, but even today we still suffer similar losses: the past 50 years have seen destruction of libraries in Sri Lanka, India, Bosnia, Iraq, Mali, Russia and many other countries due to war and disaster. 

Knowledge is fragile. The amount that exists in digital form is growing, but still only a fraction of that available in aging print and paper, and it will never capture all the information that exists even as I write these words; paper is burning, files are being deleted, old books are molding beyond rescue, storage discs are demagnetizing. The Great Library holds a romantic place in history for us, but it also holds a hard truth: what we think of as eternal is truly fragile. It can all change at the drop of a match … or the click of a mouse, the wiping of a server.

If you love books as much as I do, help save your local branch libraries, where people gather, where knowledge is free to anyone — true access without barriers of class or wealth, gender or religion. The spirit of the Great Library persists, and it’s up to us to keep it alive because knowledge can survive anything, but only if we value it highly enough. That is our responsibility, and our legacy.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be with the books.

Rachel Caine

Us too, Rachel! Thanks for sharing! Ink and Bone is out this week, both in print and digitally. And for more YA reads, be sure to visit our Everything Young Adult page. 

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