An ark in the deluge

"Libraries and archives are central to democracy because they are the storehouses of knowledge and truth"

Standpoint Magazine

There is a primitive power attached to the burning of books. We felt it when copies of The Satanic Verses were set alight on the streets of Bradford in 1989, and again in 1992 when three million books in the National Library of Sarajevo were destroyed by Serbs who then shot at the firemen who were fighting the flames. When the chief of the Fire Brigade was asked why he risked his life to save the library he replied that “I was born here and they are burning a part of me”. The term used to describe the Serbian atrocity was culturcide, because it was Bosnia’s cultural identity that was being erased, and culturcide is the subject of Richard Ovenden’s urgent and insurgent book.

“Wherever they burn books,” warned Heinrich Heine, “they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” Ovenden begins, accordingly, by returning us to 10 May 1933 where, on Berlin’s Unter den Linden, a crowd of 40,000 people are watching students throw the bust of a Jewish intellectual called Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Institute of Sexual Sciences, onto a pyre containing thousands of “un-German” books from the Institute’s library. Similar bonfires were built in 90 other German locations that night, the Nazis’ aim being to eradicate the past as well as the future of the Jewish people. Over 100 million volumes were destroyed during the Holocaust.

Libraries and archives, argues Ovenden, are central to democracy because they are the storehouses of knowledge and truth. It is our right as citizens to have access to the documents which can, in turn, explain to us our rights as citizens. When libraries and archives are burned, Ovenden suggests, five vital functions are lost to a society: its education, the diversity of its knowledge and ideas, the support of its citizens through the preservation of their liberties, its capacity to judge truth and falsehood, and the rooting of its identity in written records.

But even in peacetime, Ovenden warns, access to knowledge continues to be under attack. When governments close libraries or starve them of funding, and when technology companies privatise knowledge (now known as “data”), we move closer to the dystopia described by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “the past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”. Ovenden knows what he is talking about because he is Librarian of Oxford University’s Bodleian whose readers are required, on entry, to swear “not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame”. It is notable that Amazon’s alternative to books is known as a Kindle.

Burning the Books considers the consequences of 3,000 years of destruction, from the Great Library of Alexandria to the Reformation, the gutting of the Baghdad National Library in 2003, and the shredding of the Windrush papers. The 16th century, Ovenden suggests, was one of “the worst periods in the history of knowledge”. Hundreds of thousands of library books were destroyed with the dissolution of monasteries and every page that survived is a testament to the bravery of the nun, monk, friar or canon who fled their home with a precious manuscript hidden in a cassock.

Ovenden is equally concerned with the morality of destroying private letters and journals of literary and historical value. Lord Byron, for example, wanted his scandalous memoirs to be posthumously published but instead they were burned by his editor, while Kafka wanted his papers burned after his death but instead they were published. There is also the problem of the “displaced and migrated archives”  which separate a community from its history. This is the case for many of the former colonies of European powers but also, Ovenden notes, for modern Iraq, whose national archives are currently located in the United States, the country Iraq considers its enemy. These documents, writes Ovenden, are essential for the Iraqis “to form a thorough understanding of the tumultuous events that have shaped the country, the entire region, and to some extent the whole world since the assumption of power of the Ba’ath Party in 1968, but they also could serve a beneficial social purpose in helping Iraq come to terms with decades of civil conflict”.

Ovenden moves effortlessly through the centuries and around the world, but at the centre of his interests is the Bodleian, which was built to ensure that the Reformation’s destruction of knowledge would never be repeated. The library was to be, as Francis Bacon put it, “an ark to save learning from the deluge”. As Ovenden guides us through the corridors of the place he loves, and shares his concerns for its future in the digital age, it is hard not to see him and his fellow librarians as warriors and freedom fighters, the unsung heroes of the high streets.

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