Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden

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Review by Liz Dexter

 The processes of selection, acquisition and cataloguing, as well as of disposal and retention, are never neutral acts. They are done by human beings, working in their social and temporal contexts … Anyone using those collections today must be aware of these contexts.

Richard Ovenden has been Bodley’s Librarian since 2014, having held senior positions at other academic libraries and having moved to the Bodleian in Oxford in 2003. He’s also involved with various high-level library and information management committees and coalitions, and all this, coupled with his obvious enthusiasm and passion for preservation and the work of his fellow librarians, gives him the all-round ability to research and write this book. It’s not just a work of history but a work for the future and a call to action.

The Introduction opens with the first thing you probably think of with regard to book burning: a Nazi-inspired bonfire in Berlin on 10 May 1933 standing proxy for all the others around Germany; and he quickly relates this to the challenges to the rule of law, open society and the truth itself that are happening today. There is then a description of how “storehouses of knowledge have been at the heart of the development of societies from their inception”, even though formats and methods of storage have changed, also reminding us how fragile most of these formats are, from papyrus that can be damaged by fire, water or mould to digital materials that need the relevant readers or disappear from the web. Ovenden sets out his stall here: he will examine individual cases which tell us about the period in which the event took place and show the motivation of states to destroy archives and the heroism of those who seek to prevent that destruction.

The book follows an essentially linear and chronological timeline, starting with the clay tablets of ancient times. The development of metadata is studied alongside that of collection development – even the earliest clay tablets have colophons distinguishing their content from one another. Of course the iconic “fire in the Library of Alexandria” is examined – but of course it’s not as simple as we might think, and Ovenden unpicks the records and commentary with assurance to show us a more realistic picture than the one we might have. We then move on to John Leland’s recording of the texts held in libraries just pre the Reformation, with lots of fabulous details; here, the effect of the Reformation on European libraries is also covered, which is very interesting. And we also find testimony of the work of the people who saved as much as they could at this time, transferring them to secular friends or collectors. This leads on to a chapter on the work of Thomas Bodley himself, who saw a gap in the collection of knowledge and decided to put a collection together which then gives us a history of the Oxford University library itself – with gaps, destruction and threats included there, too.

Moving over to the US, we look at the burning of the Library of Congress, part of some somewhat complicated history between the UK and US. After this, we get some very interesting chapters on personal archives and what to do with them – if an executor is instructed to burn works of literary merit in a writer’s will, should they? We look here at Byron and Kafka, Larkin and Ted Hughes and their attitudes to their work and archives. 

Between these chronological sections, we move back to war and episodes where Louvain University Library in the First and Second World Wars was burned on purpose, and then, even worse of course, the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of Jewish scholarship in so many places, here focusing on the “Paper Brigade” who saved book and archive materials in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Post-war discussion covers the destruction of the libraries in Sarajevo, the forced removal of books and archives from country to country, including deep diving into the history of how Iraqi archives came to be taken to the US. The use of texts and archives in reparation and healing is covered here, too. Attention is paid through the text to matters of historical context and omissions, for example the “silences” in library collections that have limited how the historical record covers people of colour or women. Throughout the book there is a thread looking at colonial or other acts where a country’s sometimes most sacred texts are removed from them and taken to another country, or destroyed in order to destroy a rival culture.

Looking at the digital age, Ovenden talks about how libraries and archives have coped with the “digital deluge” and especially the multiple formats digital information takes, and how dangerous it can be if archiving is done and controlled by only private organisations, as is becoming the case nowadays.

 Should libraries and archives still have a role to play in stewarding digital memory from one generation to the next as they have done since the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia?

Ovenden clearly believes the answer to this question is “yes” and has a look at legal deposit rules and the people archiving the Internet, something he doesn’t think should be just done by a small and private organisation. The datasets created by big tech companies also need to be saved and searchable, as society needs those records “to be able to understand what our culture is doing today”.

This is followed by an urgent call away from complacency and towards libraries regaining a role in the preservation of knowledge and archives. He has solutions to the funding of a public collection of knowledge, and then the coda, “Why We Will Always Need Libraries and Archives”, has five functions of libraries and archives that we will lose if we lose or destroy libraries and archives, including their roles in supporting education and rooting societies in their cultural and historical identities. Very much not “just” a history book, this book offers a strong call which I hope will be heeded by those in charge of policy and finance.

The book is of course impeccably produced and put together by the publisher, John Murray, with notes, a bibliography and a comprehensive index. It’s printed on nice, slightly rough paper and has the images printed on this paper at the start of each chapter.

I was asked to be on the Wolfson History Prize blog tour and chose this book to read; this review was written parallel to my blog review and they echo each other. 

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Liz is an ex-librarian and blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Richard Ovenden, Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack (John Murray, 2021). 978-1529378771, 308 pp., ill., now in paperback.

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  1. Great review Liz – what a favulous and essential book this sounds!

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