The Archival Research Library in the West: from the Alexandrian Library to the Present Day

Ian Willison, C.B.E. (Institute of English Studies)
5 November 2013

We can think of the textual archive and the order of learning in the West in terms of three cultural/political turning-points: the founding of the Museum and Library of Alexandria and its later re-incarnation in imperial Baghdad; the process of establishing the national research library in Europe; and the effect of present-day globalisation and digital revolution. The general line derives from the doctrine of Raymond Irwin: `the continuity of the library tradition from Aristotle to the present day, and its close association with the progress of education and scholarship’. The doctrine has been radically broadened and deepened by the multi-volume project directed by Christian Jacob, Lieux de Savoir, which aims to place within the global perspective the whole tradition occidentale. The project was occasioned by the polemics surrounding  the disorder and then the re-ordering of learning in general  and of the national research library in particular as un centre de synthèse between the 1960s and 1980s: not only in France but also in Britain. The history of the book and libraries emerged as a more systematic field of study, a component of `the understanding  of objects belonging to the third world ... the world of the logical contents of books, libraries, computer memories, and such like ... which constitutes the central problem in the humanities’.

History type: