Saving the world from evil, bit by bit

Rupert Goodwins: There are many lessons to be learned from Iraq: one is that technology can save us from some of the consequences of war

One of the enduring feelings of the Iraq war has been the sense of timelessness. Images of flat, featureless desert punctuated by sloping lines of smoke on the horizon could have come from so many times in the past five thousand years of the region. If Ur and Babylon gave us writing, laws and cities, they also gave us warfare. And records of those wars, some of which were lost when the libraries and museums of Iraq were looted and burned by unknown forces during the last couple of weeks. It's hard to overstate the shock, horror and misery that this vandalism has spread through the literate world.

The act of burning books has a very long and utterly dishonourable history: the Qin dynasty burned nearly everything in China in 213 BCE, on the grounds that all men were evil and needed strict control by the state. The British burned the US library in 1814, seeing it as a dangerous symbol of nationhood; the Nazis burned more than 25,000 books seventy years ago, almost to the day, to purify the national literature; the Americans burned all the books of William Reich in 1954; Pol Pot destroyed the Cambodian national library as his first act on entering Phnom Penh -- there is almost no end to the litany of literary arson. And in every case, the destruction presaged further oppression: those who burn books now next burn people, said Heinrich Heine.

And that's before the degradations of time and accident set in. Everyone knows about the great library at Alexandria, but that probably fell victim to decay just as much as to Caesar or Caliph Omar. Fire, flood, beetle and earthquake are just as good at destroying libraries and museums as the perversities of mankind, but the destruction is still heartfelt. These places hold the memories of our culture, the lessons of the past and the keys to the future, and losing them is a profound disaster no matter what the cause.

So why is there no worldwide campaign of digitisation? Museums and national libraries are omnifarious basket cases, hostages to fortune, and getting everything into the digital domain would be a huge practical and symbolic step. It would take the spirit of libraries -- knowledge is an essential bulwark against repression and force for freedom -- and give it new life. Once you've digitised everything, even if you don't understand what it is that you've captured, you can make backups, distribute the database and create an investment in and for the future. And you can keep it out of the hands of bastards.

I vote for a robot repository on the Moon, with robust data links back home -- you can build lunar communication devices for around a hundred quid these days. Plus a few backups in various orbits, in deep mines, copies in every city in the world, and one on my desk, please.

Digitisation is no panacea. The original objects have far more data in them than can easily be captured, and of course nothing compensates for the psychic sorrow of losing irreplaceable and often profoundly beautiful artefacts that link us to our ancestors. There are many other problems. Computer data itself is hard to keep -- the medium in which it is stored can degrade over time, in some cases surprisingly quickly. Much has already been lost from NASA missions in the 60s due to tapes falling apart. And even if the data itself survives, that's no good if the technology to read it back is no more.

Digitising is also disruptive, expensive and potentially damaging: there are plenty of tales of well-funded projects that did more harm than good, for any number of reasons that an archivist or librarian would be happy to relate.

But there are solutions to all of the above. Extremely long-term storage solutions exist -- it's merely a matter of carving nanometric patterns in titanium disks with ultra high energy beams - and you can construct a hierarchy of storage with robust, easy to read instructions at the top telling you how to unlock the next level, and so on.

There are also advantages. A library is useless without its index. If something isn't catalogued, it might as well not be there -- and no method of cataloguing is foolproof. New findings constantly surface from even the best-run and most famous libraries, and many professional historians and researchers count the thrill of the chase as one of their occupations' most personal benefits. Putting everything onto a database where it can be searched and cross-referenced with ease will free the library from the tyranny of the catalogue.

Such a project would need to be immense, international and approached with unimpeachable clarity. But the benefits would be immediate, far-reaching and work on many levels. It would be apt if one of the lessons of Iraq is that high technology can free us from warfare's timeless aptitude for chaos.