• What blockchain could have done to save the Library of Alexandria

  • Blockchain technology could aid in the preservation of records and archive systems in an effort to save the future of the Library of Alexandria.

    The study of history and ancient peoples is critical to the preservation of knowledge passed down through generations.

    Unfortunately, the importance of knowledge is amplified when it is lost. Perspectives were lost, advancements in philosophy and literature were forgotten, and languages and translations vanished from the earth as a result of tragedies such as the fire at the Library of Alexandria, the pillaging of the House of Wisdom in ancient Baghdad, or the more recent loss of artifacts at the Iraq Museum.

    How can we protect our heritage artifacts from disaster as we work to preserve our history?

    Using blockchain technology to keep track of data stored on a decentralized cloud service could be just what the historical and archive industries need to protect our collective human history from destruction, pillage, and faulty record-keeping.

    Blockchain as a data repository

    Many sub-sections of the archive industry are underfunded and lack the resources to properly care for the data held. According to this 2014 declaration petitioning for more funding for the United States Archive, there is a clear lack of funding on many fronts, which may result in the loss of physical and digital records.

    Another option is to directly store data on the blockchain. According to David Vorick, CEO of Skynet and co-founder of Sia, “a major benefit of using a blockchain is that you can build on an open marketplace, which ensures fair pricing for everyone.” This prevents third parties from participating in the funding while also ensuring that community members who are passionate about preserving their heritage can directly fund a storage system.

    Vorick went on to say that “if you rely on external infrastructure, you have given your infrastructure provider the ability to completely disrupt your business — something they will gladly exploit.”

    Concerns frequently arise regarding the legitimacy, security, and privacy of stored information. Many documents and records are kept for the benefit of the community and, as such, must be kept safe and secure for the sake of their heritage. The nature of blockchain-based data keepers protects information not by storing it in centralized databases, as some leading organizations do, making it more vulnerable to data breaches, but by dividing files “into multiple pieces and sending them to different servers or nodes, reducing the possibility of external control over user data.”

    Another critical aspect of blockchain archive storage is the document’s immutability. “However, online archives are also vulnerable to document removal in ways that are impossible to detect,” according to The Social Science Research Council. It also stated that back in 2001, writers were granted access to an online archive of their own works, but other parties were able to go in and delete the writers’ works without disclosing the information or providing any indication as to why an article was deleted. Some articles and publications were lost because they were deemed unworthy of preservation.

    Blockchain archives could store data across nodes all over the world, ensuring that it remains a permanent fixture on the blockchain and thus in history.

    This conveniently leads to the next part of blockchain technology’s benefits: giving credit where credit is due by creating an immutable record of ownership. There will be no doubt about who owns what if a blockchain is used, similar to a digital passport for documents and records.

    Blockchain proponents frequently claim that “immutability provides integrity,” ensuring who owns the document and who has and has had access to it. Nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, for example, are causing the art industry to reconsider ownership rights by “allowing artists to protect their creations from falsification and duplicity in the digital realm.” Using the same concept with archives and data collection, there will always be a way to ensure that the records are not tampered with, proving the original owner and format.

    How to Assist

    In retrospect, we can see what went wrong and what could have been done differently.

    While this could be to prevent other similar problems from occurring or simply out of curiosity, this practice has the potential to save our dying languages and keep people’s memories alive for future generations.

    Imagine if all of the records lost in the great fire of the Library of Alexandria — or those lost in the 500-year-later destruction of its temple, the Serapeum — were kept on a blockchain. What information would we study and learn that could have permanently altered modern society?

    During the pillaging of Ancient Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, which housed some of the world’s finest translations, philosophical and religious texts were destroyed and dumped into the Tigris, turning it “black for half a year because of the ink from the thousands of books drowned to their metaphorical deaths.” The loss of these priceless records has done incalculable harm to our understanding of humanity and has often been viewed historically as a way to undermine heritage and rewrite narratives. As a result, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization report “Lost Memories - Libraries and Archives Destroyed in the Twentieth Century,” “measures must be taken to preserve our written heritage.”

    The use of immutable blockchain technology to secure records could have been extremely useful during the 2018 fire that scorched through the National Museum of Brazil, destroying invaluable records of our history and works of art. Dalton de Souza Amorim, a professor at the University of So Paulo, stated that the “worst loss” was the “anthropological collections,” which were recordings of indigenous languages that are now lost forever.

    While blockchain technology cannot protect physical objects from accidental or intentional damage, the data collected from these objects and researchers, similar to recordings of people speaking now-forgotten languages, can be protected.

    In his essay “Religion as a Cultural System,” American anthropologist Clifford Geertz stated that culture is “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life,” and thus, protecting the records of languishing cultures is essential.

    Putting ownership on a blockchain would help to settle the ongoing debate over who owns what, regardless of who discovered it or who now holds it. This is especially true in light of Iraq and Egypt’s recent success in reclaiming 11,500 artifacts after a battle to prove ownership and “coordinate the return of around 5,000 ancient papyrus fragments and 6,500 ancient clay objects due to the artifacts’ lack of reliable provenance, or ownership histories.”

    Countries and communities will no longer need to claim ownership of any documents or records if they use a blockchain because all of the necessary information will be recorded and secure from tampering.

    Now that we have blockchain technology, we can position ourselves to protect and pass on our knowledge and history to future generations without fear of permanently losing records, materials, and data. Imagine how many Libraries of Alexandria could be saved in the future if we know how important blockchain technology is for storing and retrieving information.

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