[ print ]

Chair of Reproductive Biology, Director Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh; Author, After Dolly

Use of the Internet has not changed the way that I think, but it is making a unique contribution by providing me with immediate and convenient access to an extraordinary range of ideas and information. This development can be considered as a natural extension to the sequence that began with tablets of clay, continued through papyrus, parchment, handwritten manuscripts on paper to the recent mass produced books printed on paper. Happily the Internet provides us with access to many of these earlier forms of the written word as well as to electronic communications.

Access to information and ideas has always been important for both personal development and progress of a community or nation. As a school boy, when I first became interested in facts and ideas my family were living in an industrial part of the north of England and at that time I made great use of a public library. The library was part of an industrial village established by a philanthropic entrepreneur who made his money by importing Alpacas' cashmere-like fleece and weaving fine clothes. Alpacas are members of the camelid family found in the Andes of Peru and Chile. The village, which is now a World Heritage Site is Saltaire, named after the entrepreneur Sir Titus Salt. He provided not only houses, a hospital, but schools and a technical college, and the library. I took it for granted that libraries which provided access to books, most of which could be borrowed and taken home, were available everywhere. This is still not the case, but in the near future the Internet may provide an equivalent opportunity for people everywhere.

Whereas libraries have been established in most major societies, it is only in the recent past that they have been made generally available to ordinary citizens. One of the earliest libraries for which records remain is the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt which was founded around 300BC by pharaoh Ptolemy I. It grew to hold several hundred thousand scrolls, some of which are said to have been taken from boats that happened to dock at Alexandria while carrying out their trade.

The library contributed to the establishment of Alexandria as a major seat of learning. Sadly the library was destroyed by fire. Never the less it represented a particular landmark in the development of the concept of a library as a collection of books to provide a reservoir of knowledge, that should be staffed by specific keepers whose tasks included expansion of the collection. Other similar libraries were established during this period, including those at Ephesus in Turkey and Sankore in Timbuktu.

During the period of the Roman Empire wealthy and influential people continued the practice of establishing libraries, most of which were open only to scholars with the appropriate qualifications. A survey in 378AD identified 29 libraries in Rome, but as the Empire declined the habit of establishing and maintaining libraries was lost. The development of monasteries provided a renewed stimulus for learning. They amassed book collections and introduced the habit of exchanging volumes. Recognizing the importance of learning the Benedictine rules required that monks spent specified periods of time reading. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages wealthy families again began to collect books and then donate their libraries to seats of learning in places such as Florence, Paris, Vatican City and Oxford.

All of these libraries depended upon the copying of text by hand and it was only the development of printing by Gutenberg in the 1400s that production of books was transformed they were much more readily available. During the period 1400 to 1800 there was an extraordinary expansion of libraries, by universities and nations. Some of these were named after major benefactors, such as the Bodlean Library in Oxford and the library donated by the Massachusetts clergyman John Harvard, after whom the university is named. In the United States the Library of Congress was founded in 1800 and after a fire during the War of Independence its stock was replenished by the purchase of the collection that had been amassed by Thomas Jefferson. The Library of Congress now claims to be the largest library in the world with more than 150 million items.

It was also during this period that public libraries became more common and books became more generally available for the first time. In some cases subscriptions were used to purchase books, but there was no charge for subsequent loans. One such was the Library Company of Philadelphia established by a group that included Benjamin Franklin in 1731.

The oldest surviving free reference library in the United Kingdom, Chetham's, was established in Manchester in 1653. Some 200 years later Karl Marx and Frederick Engels carried out research for Das Kapital in this library. It was at this time that the UK parliament passed an Act to promote the formation of Public Libraries. In the United States the first free public library was only formed in 1833, in New Hampshire. The Scots born entrepreneur Andrew Carniegie went on to build more than 1,700 public libraries in the US between 1881 and 1919. These libraries were the first to make large numbers of books available to the general public.

Of course books are only valuable to those who have access to them, can read and are encouraged to do so. Often reading was associated with religion as knowledge of the sacred scripture was important. In England around 1200 the ability to read a particular Psalm entitled a defendant to be tried in an ecclesiastical court, which was typically more lenient than a civil court. In some places funds were allocated specifically to teach people to read the scriptures, but this provision was not always available universally. At the time of the civil war in the US owners were prohibited from teaching their slaves to read and write. As recently as 1964 the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was arrested and expelled for daring to teach peasants to read.

Universal access to the Internet could have an exceptionally important contribution to make to future political developments. Access to the Internet would then provide the opportunity to everyone anywhere in the world to obtain a great deal of information on any subject that they choose. Knowledge accumulated over centuries of human experience is an important counter to fashions of the moment communicated through commercial mass media. It is hard to imagine that making each of us aware of the circumstances and beliefs of people in other parts of the world can do anything but good. We would surely be more likely to assist countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to form liberal democracies by helping to provide education, training, employment and so wealth and greater understanding than by military take over, which inevitably causes a very large numbers of civilian casualties and a great deal of damage.

There is one cautionary note. Texts of any kind, be they on parchment or available through electronic systems, are only as useful as they are accurate. In the days when books were prepared by hand the accuracy of scribes was recognized as being of paramount importance. In a rather different way, but of equal importance, we depend upon the rigor of the research done by those whose electronically reproduced articles we read.