There is nothing new under the sun

Talking to some people at the European Congress on E-inclusion this week, I was struck by two things:

Firstly we were talking about the issues of authority, control and access in relation to the impact of the digital revolution on libraries and other educational institutions. I thought of a useful analogy: the Elgin (or I should say, Parthenon) marbles in the British Museum. The marbles technically belong to the Greeks, Elgin took them away from Athens and they are now on display in London. One of the arguments against returning the marbles is that more people visit London than Athens and therefore more people can see the marbles than would if they were returned.

The East Pediment - Parthenon Marbles, British Museum
The East Pediment - Parthenon Marbles, British Museum

In terms of content on the internet, we are facing similar issues. A university lecturer may say of a piece of work ‘I’m not sharing that, I have the intellectual property rights, it stays within the university’ or, they might be a part of the new open educational resources or ‘open courseware‘ movement, and share their learning materials online for free to enable anyone to access it. The arguments around returning the marbles are similar to those about online content. We are arguing, do we make it available or don’t we, who owns it, should access come before ownership? It’s an ongoing debate.

The only weakness in this analogy is that I do think we should hand back the marbles to Greece but that I would love to see all universities and colleges sharing their learning materials for free for all to access!

The other parallel which I noticed also has a classical flavour (I studied Classical Civilisation at university!) One of the speakers at the conference referred to the short attention span of researchers nowadays and the rise of the importance of the abstract. People will read (and maybe just scan) the abstract, and rarely will read further than that in an academic article. The same applies to news articles (particularly online). I am also noticing, with my use of Twitter, that I scan much more quickly than I ever used to and this is even changing the way I read newspapers and other text online, I flit like a butterfly or a magpie from one thing to another, absorbing what I want as I go.

Papyrus scroll
Papyrus scroll

I talked with some delegates in a coffee break about the shift this is creating for people writing academic works. They now need to put the main ‘denouement’ of their work in the abstract to attract attention but then this has the effect that people will not read further, they’ve got what they wanted and move on.

The parallel I thought of, was that of the ancient scroll. When the ancients wrote anything, because it was on a scroll, they would write (especially if it was a letter) their name and who they were writing to, before launching into the discussion. Witness Paul’s epistles in the New Testament, they begin, for example ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus…’ (Ephesians 1:1). This was because you would have to unroll the papyrus to read through to the bottom, you couldn’t jump to the point you wanted very easily. They were restricted by their medium, or at least, the way they wrote was shaped by the medium. Isn’t it interesting that although the internet is an extremely enabling tool, that it is still affecting the way we read and write and absorb knowledge, much in the same way that the papyrus scrolls created a certain form of writing?

So, who made it to the bottom here?! Let me know what you think!


  1. I made it Mrs Taylor. And very interesting reading too. There is a parallel tension in the world of health care. In the past the physician held all the knowledge within himself. Sharing it with the patient for their benefit at best or for his own power and significance at worse. Now medical knowledge and with it self diagnosis is available to all. A physician might react with insecurity or fear when a patient appears to know more than ones self. Or might choose to take the patients new found knowledge and inturpret it with his wisdom for their benefit. The Internet has and will change all mediums it touches. However Greeks / doctors / lecturers fear not we are still needed to touch and teach, and let’s face it London is not the birth place of western thought.


  2. No probs. Ps feel free to correct any comments of mine for spelling and punctuation! Not my strength! 🙂


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