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The Age of the Internet: The Library is about to go the way of the Dodo

By Cosmas Ronno | May 7th 2017

The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), a giant flightless bird whose only living relative is the tiny (by comparison) Nicobar pigeon, lived on the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius until it was hunted out of existence by rapacious Dutch sailors in the 1660s.

The Portuguese were the first known humans to set foot on the then uninhabited island a mere 80 years earlier but thanks to the Dodo’s tasty poulette the Dutch could not resist indulging their palates to the detriment of the poor creature.

The Dodo is now a mysterious creature of legend and unverifiable lore mixed with a pinch of myth. A Dutch-British scientific expedition is hoping to unearth a clearer picture of what the Dodo looked like when they are through digging up a 10,000-year-old mountain of Dodo bones at a nearby marshy island called the Mare aux Songes.

It looks like another legend of antiquity and stalwart of our time, The Library, is about to go the way of the Dodo. And what, you may ask, is it driving the Library to extinction? The answer is simple: The Ubiquitous Internet.

From Antiquity to the Classical period, the dark ages to the renaissance, the Industrial Revolution to the start of the 21st Century the traditional library has quenched humankind’s thirst for knowledge and expanded his vista beyond recognition.

The great civilisations of the ancient world namely, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Greco-Roman, have contributed immensely to the art of collecting records, artifacts, and tools of human endeavour and history and placing them in a central place now known as the Library.

The most famous of all libraries is no doubt the Library at Alexandria. It is recorded that before its final demise at the end of the 3rd Century AD at the hands of some thuggish characters (principally Aurelian and Diocletian) it held hundreds of thousands of scrolls. Today’s sub- Saharan main libraries look like kindergarten bookshelves in comparison!

Before the age of the Internet African, Asian and Chinese scholars had to obtain research and travel grants to visit the libraries of the West such as Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow, Cornell, the Smithsonian Institution, Kew Gardens, Yale, and the University of California in search of mundane items as the ‘Makonde & Kamba Carving Collection’ or to read A.C Hollis’s ‘The Nandi: Their Language and Folklore’

Thanks to the internet such methods are now obsolete. With the click of the mouse or finger tap on a smart phone, a Primary School pupil can access sites such as www.archive.org and others and read online or download books, audio, video, material relating to the entire Colonial Rule in Africa for free. One can access images of thousands if not millions of insect, plant, fish and mollusc species collected over the last 150 years without leaving the comfort of one’s armchair.

Our universities and tertiary institutions (both public and private) are now connected to high-speed internet on the fiber optic cable that connects East Africa to Western Europe (and via Transatlantic Traffic to North America) through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The project dubbed ‘Kenya Education Network- KENET’ working through Liquid Telecom Kenya Ltd is to be cascaded to secondary and primary schools thanks to funding from USAID.

The impact of such connectivity (speeds have increased 25-fold since 2009) is to render most libraries useless as repositories for reading materials. Internet giants like Google and Microsoft have been scanning non-copyrighted materials and placing them online for free downloads for about 20 years now.

World renowned publishers are offering millions of elementary, high school and college students free access to popular e-textbooks. Most North American Universities and Colleges offer free online classes to whoever is willing to learn.

Our universities and colleges should follow suit: digitize all materials, rid our libraries of bulky useless materials (donate them to nascent nations like South Sudan and Banana States scattered throughout Africa) and create space for more computers and reading desks.

It is time the Great Bibliotheques and Maktab Al Kitabs of yore took a well deserved rest!

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