One human thought

One of my favourite movie quotes comes from Cleopatra, the Liz Taylor / Richard Burton version, when Caesar is sacking Egypt and that wonder of the ancient world, the Great Library of Alexandria, is burning to the ground along with the rest of the city.

“How dare you and the rest of your barbarians set fire to my library? Play conqueror all you want, Mighty Caesar! Rape, murder, pillage thousands, millions of human beings! But neither you nor any other barbarian has the right to destroy one human thought!”

Historical inaccuracies aside, librarians would gladly celebrate this fearless leader’s vehement defence of this institution of knowledge. Librarians would also revolt at her seeming lack of compassion for human life. It is intolerable to think that human suffering on such a grand scale can be measured against a book. It is even more intolerable to imagine that at some level she may be right.

While this is an extreme example of loss, this quote still touches on something important, the long-term value and preservation of knowledge for future generations.

When you are creating your works of knowledge, when you write your thesis, how much consideration do you give to access to that work beyond your lifetime? With so many immediate pressures already weighing on your daily research life, is this something that is parked in the “I’ll worry about this later” basket?

Without a doubt, many PhDs go into study hoping to make the world a better place. But as the reality of study and workload and life and the vagaries of academia start to press in on you, at times you start to look at your PhD with less idealistic eyes, and view your research as a product. Do the work, submit, graduate, get on with your life. Four years worth of toil now sits on a shelf in storage, or behind an electronic gateway, waiting for someone to discover it.

Or does it?

University Libraries have the capacity and expertise to hold and store these works in perpetuity, in print and electronic forms, enabling access to the wider research community over time. But they generally can only do so with the cooperation of the author. And there is a process that must be followed to enable this access. It is simple but finicky, with the end-product moving through several hands before landing in the lap of the Library Acquisitions Department. After such a long journey, this must seem like another trial of patience for the PhD student.

While PhD researchers believe that only their supervisor/s will ever read their thesis, there is a risk that the opportunity for anyone to read it will be lost altogether. There are current examples of postgraduate theses that are available, but not accessible, simply because the author did not fill in and sign the release form. Some of these students are no longer contactable because they have moved away, or simply lost interest. Luckily, this does not seem to happen so much at a PhD level, but no system is full-proof. Changes in processes, personnel and technologies all create an environment that can break the chain.

So don’t lose heart when you get to the end, only to find there are still more steps to take. Be diligent and conscientious about how your knowledge is captured and stored. Put aside any thoughts that no one will read your thesis. Consider instead what Cleopatra might say, that human life is precious, but a human thought has the potential to not only outlive its creator, but influence generations and generations of people to come. Immortality is a mere thought – and a simple A4-sized submission form – away.


  1. anahera01

    E te rangatira, ngā mihi

    I am concerned however what whare taonga might do should something as horrible as no power be an issue in the future. We concentrate so much on the electronic version because of space, what consideration is provided if we should turn to the dark ages where we do not have electricity and therefore cannot access the electronic knowledge which has been stored?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amber Nicholson

      I remember the server going down all across the uni once. Suddenly, there was little we could do as all our work is carried out on the computer. The options thus became: library, or pub. It threw a disconcerting light on how much we rely on technology.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dara Kelly

    So, so true Manuhiri and I do actually think about the longevity of the knowledge we create. The idea that our ideas will become outdated is something far too hard to comprehend in terms of the eternal question of asking ourselves “Does what I do matter?” and I choose to ignore because I know if I worry about it, I’ll never finish or pick up my writing again.

    That being said! I have been absolutely astounded by how much traffic I have generated in Research Gate as a way of distributing both my Master’s thesis, and a book chapter that came from it. As of last week, these two publications have reached 300 downloads in one year. I am happy that I took the chance and uploaded them for the very same reason you have talked about in this post. We need people to read what we generate, and actually say, “Hey those were Kelly (2012)’s ideas”. Even though it seems it doesn’t matter, it matters immensely! We would do ourselves a great disservice to sell ourselves short and forget to disseminate our work.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Abigail McClutchie

    Hey Cleopatra – thanks for the post. I just figured out why I can’t access some of those PhD theses I wanted to read. I’ve not really thought about the questions you posed regarding future access. I was thinking more along the lines of putting my research and ideas out to the community, practitioners and entrepreneurs more than the academic fraternity. But now that you’ve brought it up, I’ve relied on those academics’ contributions and some future students will probably rely on our work. I’ll remember the form and if I don’t I’ll rely on you to remind me. Much aroha.


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