On Knowledge: Event Overview

On knowledge button

The first great library in Western history, the library in Alexandria (founded in the 3rd century BC) not only gathered books in papyrus rolls, but also drew scholars together to study them. In studying them, they changed them: poems which had once been copied without differentiating between words let alone stanzas, were now copied into verses, because scholars had identified metrical and other patterns.

How we collect, how we store, and how we talk about knowledge helps to preserve and propagate that knowledge so that it might continue to act upon and form us. Yet this is a two way street. If we close ourselves down to our various collections of knowledge we run the risk of forgetting what people, somewhere, already knew (the understandings of indigenous peoples, who have built their own stores and archives, the understandings of peoples from earlier times). The director of the Vienna Papyrus collection, Cornelia Roemer has argued that what we value, added to what we collect and teach, has determined what remains from the vast stores of knowledge written onto perishable papyrus in the ancient world. The emphasis on those books thought to best exemplify or allow the teaching of moral positions narrowed the canon of what was taught in the West. The technological shift from the ancient papyrus roll to the modern codex (or book with pages) around the 6th century AD, and to the more compressed miniscule writing of the 8th century AD, required the transference from one medium to the other, and only those texts that were most highly valued were transferred and saved for future generations. So much of what was known perished either in conflagrations of ideological hatred such as that that snatched the last great scholar of the library of Alexandria, Hypatia, from her chariot and tore her apart, or in the slow burn of at times deliberate indifference.

From the very beginnings of book collection two, at times opposed, ideas of what a book or a collection of books might mean took hold. On the one hand the book was an object of pure status: to have a book, to hold a book, signified that one belonged to the elite. What was valued and protected was that which was felt to ground or promote that status. On the other hand books had always been agents of knowledge, somehow innocent of the complex vanities of prestige and power that have always limited and enabled their existence, somehow something more than simple commodities, somehow something that could act on, form and answer our need to try and understand. While the collection and the collector must mediate between these ideas, the existence and protection of the collection is crucial to the very possibility of deepening our understandings of ourselves and the world.

In The Solid Mandala Patrick White stages this struggle over the identity of the archive, or seat of knowledge, that is the library, as part of his portrait of two brothers who are complementary opposites. The ‘idiot’ Arthur, needs to know what it is that he has already sensed through the symbol of the mandala, which he feels and dances: ‘totality’. Arthur, in seeking the meaning of this word goes to the great reading room of ‘the Library’, whose model is the reading room of the Mitchell Wing of the State Library of NSW. He looks for books and what they can allow him to understand. His brother, Waldo, whose dreams of prestige and glory remain stillborn, has sought out the library long before Arthur, taking a job there as a librarian, because it is a place which offers both status and access to knowledge. Yet his mixed motivations enter into conflict and undermine him, confusing him to the point that he throws his brother out of the library in a gesture of refusal that ultimately leads to his own collapse into a consuming hatred, which he tries to pull his brother into. Their confrontation in the reading room forms a centrepiece for the novel as a whole and puts into relief the conflicts over knowledge, its acquisition and collection, and its utility.

What can a library, archive, or seat of knowledge give us? How do we understand knowledge transmission and acquisition? How does this determine what we can know and what we might become?

In order to give a sense of the scope of these questions a novelist (Gail Jones), an anthropologist (Tim Rowse), a philosopher (Stephen Hetherington), a historian of archival collections (Richard Neville), and a scholar of antiquity (Julia Kindt) will separately address them. In addition an actor (Lawrence Held) will read passages from Patrick White's The Solid Mandala that describe a conflict over the meaning of knowledge in the Reading Room of the Mitchell Library of the State Library of NSW. The event will be held in the Reading Room at Mitchell itself, on Sunday afternoon, October 17, with refreshments served.