A Norwegian Homage to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Mette Newth
Norway, 2010

In 1995 the construction of the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina began. The same year the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (NFFE) was established by a national organization of authors, journalists, librarians, publishers, editors and human rights defenders. Aware of the high aims for this new world library of humanism and human rights, NFFE proposed an online bibliographical database on freedom of expression as a gift from Norway.

The Beacon Database: A Tool for Knowledge

Beacon aims to be a tool for the quest for knowledge. By naming the database Beacon for Freedom of Expression, NFFE wished both to pay homage to the proud humanistic traditions of the old library and Alexandria's famous lighthouse of Pharos, which once had the important task of safely guiding travelers.

The Beacon for Freedom of Expression database was formally presented to the Library of Alexandria by the Norwegian Minister of Culture and Church Affairs in May 2003. The database was realized thanks to years of invaluable contributions from hundreds of sources worldwide, students and faculty at Oslo University College, the expertise of RAVN Webveveriet AS, as well as the partnership with IFEX and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), and the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs (currently the Norwegian Ministry of Culture).

The New Bibliotheca AlexandrinaThe New Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Alexandria: A beacon of knowledge

Almost 2,300 years ago the Egyptian city of Alexandria boasted one of the greatest forums of ideas, knowledge and memory of all times, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The library survived troubled centuries but was finally destroyed during Roman rule late in the 3rd century AD. The library contained more than half a million, mainly Greek, volumes. Although the library and its invaluable contents were destroyed, the memory of the ancient world's unique storehouse of learning lived on, along with dreams of its revival.

 

The revival of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina began in Egypt in the mid-1970s and was eventually internationally embraced. UNESCO organized an architectural competition and awarded the honor to the Norwegian firm Snøhetta in 1988. In 1990 UNESCO's International Commission for the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria expressed a formidable vision for the new library:

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina will stand as a testimony to a decisive moment in the history of human thought - the attempt to constitute a summum of knowledge, to assemble the writings of all the peoples. It will bear witness to an original undertaking that, in embracing the totality and diversity of human experience, became the matrix for a new spirit of critical inquiry, for a heightened perception of knowledge as a collaborative process.

The Aswan declaration on the revival of the Library of Alexandria (1990)

 

Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds  by Nicholas J. Karolides (1998)Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds by Nicholas J. Karolides (1998)

Censorship

Censorship has targeted critical thinkers and courageous writers in all societies throughout history. Thousands of men and women have been victims of severe persecution, and countless books, newspapers and libraries have been subject to destruction. While today's censorship is being thoroughly monitored by a great number of organizations worldwide, details of the world history of censorship are still lacking. The aim of Beacon for Freedom of Expression therefore was to document the bibliographical data of past and present censored books and newspapers around the world, as thoroughly as sources would allow. Thus Beacon would serve both as a source of knowledge and as a symbolic tribute to the memory of all known and unknown victims of censorship. Not least, and in accordance with the Aswan Declaration on the revival of the Library of Alexandria, Beacon was intended as a tool for the enhancement of an open dialogue between the world's cultures. Hopefully such tools will contribute to greater awareness that as universal human rights, freedom of expression, free access to information and free debate represent the best defense any people have against suppression.

In recognition of the importance of access to information and education for the enhancement of human rights, peace and democracy, the Beacon database was also a tribute to the United Nations Decade of Human Rights Education (1995-2004).

When the Beacon database was launched on the website in 2003, it contained more than 40,000 bibliographical entries. Most of the entries were books and newspapers that have been censored through the ages and around the world. Furthermore nearly 5,000 of these references were literature about various aspects of freedom of expression and the history of censorship.

Although far from complete Beacon then represented the most comprehensive verified historic and contemporary bibliographic database on censorship and freedom of expression. Grounded in professional principles and the skills of librarians, journalists, human rights activists and writers, Beacon for Freedom of Expression may continue to serve as a tool for collecting bibliographical data on censorship and freedom of expression. Moreover in the true spirit of Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Beacon is an open source of knowledge for users worldwide.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom of opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights