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.