The celebrated library at Alexandria in Egypt contained the greatest collection of literature in the ancient world. Founded at the end of the 4th Century B.C., it had the objective of collecting in one place a copy of every important Greek text ever written. Ever since, a compulsion to compile just such a comprehensive collection of literature has been a feature of every major civilized culture: the British Library, the Library of Congress, the Bibliothèque Nationale, all were founded with similar aims, and now maintain massive collections of books and journals.

The scale of such undertakings, even in times when comparatively few written works were produced, was vast: writ large in these endeavours are exactly the problems of storage, retrieval and security which modern data-processing managers wrestle with. The history of the Alexandrian Library itself offers one of the earliest object lessons in the importance of following effective data security procedures: Plutarch records that in 47 B.C. part of the library caught fire, and many unique books were lost forever that might otherwise have survived.