The Library of Alexandria - the wisdom not to be forgotten

The Great Library of Alexandria is an inspiring story for any Information or BI Manager and we can still learn from it, even after 2 millenia.


The library of Alexandria, also known as the Great Library, was founded by King Ptolemy I in the 3rd century BC. The king allegedly ordered the library to gather all the knowledge of the world up into one location and his successor Ptolemy II went a step further by actually quantifying the target. He apparently set it at 500,000 volumes. Historians can't agree on the actual size of the collection, but some believe that they got close to this.

Anyway, until it burned down in 48 AD, it was the largest library of its time and has become a milestone in the history of European culture and education (Ptolemy was Macedonian, one of Alexander the Great's successor generals - so it was actually a Greek/ Egyptian project). To demonstrate how important the building was for him, the king located the library almost directly next to the Royal Palace and the library funding was then consistently ensured by the following generations of rulers.

The organisation and management of the library was no trivial matter. The chief librarian was appointed by the royal court and later by the Roman Emperor. He was not only a manager, but also an active editor. The library's large staff not only copied and translated scrolls, but also compared editions and acquired new texts.

The Library had a clear goal and a royal mandate and the librarians were allegedly quite single-minded in its pursuit. They stood ready to buy books anywhere in the world, borrow them if they weren't for sale and steal them when all else failed. The Roman scholar Aelius Galen even reported that on arrival in Alexandria all ships were searched and scrolls on board confiscated to become "donations" to the library. The original owner was paid or received a copy. Either way, the pharaoh always kept the originals.

Another story says that Ptolemy III asked Athens for the loan of the original writings of selected Greek scholars. The Athenians requested nearly 1/2 metric ton of silver as collateral and that the library make copies of the originals and send them back immediately. Instead, Ptolemy sent back fabulously made copies on the best papyrus, along with the assurance that Athens can keep the silver and that the originals were being well looked after.

Acquisition, storage and maintenance of the collection were not enough on their own, however. For the library to serve as a useful source of knowledge to the scholars working in the library campus and their ruler, it was necessary to invent a cataloguing system. Historical sources report that the first chief librarian, Zenodotus, introduced a simple classification system for the books and organised them according to their subject matter and author. Callimachus, who worked under Zenodotus, developed this into a thorough and complete bibliographic index system. Scrolls were kept in bins according to subject matter. It's reported that Callimachus hung an index tablet above each bin which listed the scrolls it contained, their authors (listed alphabetically) and other essential bibliographic information, like other works written by the author. It is the first ever recorded use of meta-data, and the first compilation of a library catalogue. The method was refined to such a degree that it was used virtually unchanged, right up until the 19th century.

There are many stories and legends about the Great Library of Alexandria, and the truth is, the amount we know for sure about it, is much less than the amount we don't. However, one thing I believe I can say for certain is, from a modern IT perspective, the Bibliotheca Alexandria was technically a big Information Management project. It was concerned with the collection, maintenance, categorisation and discovery of information, after all. Given this, I've drawn some purely subjective conclusions and observations:


Conclusion #1 - Clear Vision

All the world`s books = a Crystal Clear Vision, clear goals

Notice how clear the objective and vision can be. The mission is set so that everyone can remember it - "we want all the books in the world"! Believe me, from now on you'll remember it too. It's a demonstration of simplicity and practicality. Only a vision with this type of clarity and simplicity can be used in real life and followed.

Does your BI / IM department have a clear and understandable mission which everyone knows and understands? If so, this shouldn't be a secret, share it with us for inspiration. I think it all starts with a clear vision.


Conclusion #2 - Sponsorhip

A Royal Mandate is Very Strong sponsorship

Notice who was the sponsor of the project. Translated into the context of a company, it was none other than the CEO himself. It was not the Chief of Finance, whose objectives are completely different and it wasn't anyone from the finance department, a common owner of BI initiatives. What motivated the king to make the decision? He wanted to build a strategic position that gave his country a competitive advantage as well as prestige.

How strong did the mandate and support for the library have to be for the vision to be realized? Extremely. It didn't just fall from the sky. It had to be promoted and defended.

Furthermore, think about the consistency of this vision - a project like no other knowledge management project is almost always a short and one-time thing. This one, to become successful had to be given adequate time and over that time it was able to become part of the culture and DNA of the company/ kingdom.


Conclusion #3 - Metadata

Metadata is the key to Searchability

It's absolutely clear that the library management considered the organisation of the information and the ability to access it easily, a high priority. They recognised that it would benefit everybody and even invented a functional and practical system to achieve this.

Today, more than 2000 years later, we are witnessing a continual accumulation of information into more and more advanced formats and larger units. We start building larger data warehouses and handling BigData when we haven't even managed to use the existing data bases competently - companies often don't have models of their data structures, let alone a single, shared model.

We spend time implementing high tech and cool reporting platforms, but don't know how many reports the firm as a whole manages and who is in charge of them.

This is the reality and exceptions are an absolute rarity. We invest so much money on the shelves and plumbing of our digital libraries and so little on the people and organising the information. I'm convinced that building a new, larger repository for our libraries won't improve them, it's necessary to finally start creating their catalogues.