Books | Cultural history

Burning the books

Libraries, archives and manuscripts: ever since they have existed, they have also been at risk. Librarian Richard Ovenden has written a history of their destruction

On the floor of a room are scattered many papers and documents. A man with a newspaper under his arm looks at the destruction.

The Iraqi National Library was looted and set on fire in 2003. Thousands of historical documents were destroyed

In 1814, Washington D.C was stormed by the British army that was intent on wreaking vengeance. It placed the American capital under siege and destroyed the recently established Library of Congress –in the wake of the Burning of Washington, as it came to be known. The books and documents that survived the ransacking were thrown into piles and incinerated; some objects were stolen as war trophies. The library was collateral damage – and, as a symbol of the aspiring republic, a highly symbolic one. Later it was rebuilt.

When it comes to modern libraries and archives, discussions about books and budgets are never very far apart. Former president Thomas Jefferson’s private library of 6,000 books formed the cornerstone of the new Library of Congress.

While war destroyed the former library in 1814, forty years later an accidental fire wiped out the new, much more extensive holdings. Around half of the 55,000 books, among them almost the entire Jefferson collection, were consumed by flames. It wasn’t until after the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 that the Library of Congress was set up once again which then grew into one of the largest libraries worldwide.

The central library of the Belgian town of Leuven, founded in 1636, had a collection of 300,000 books besides numerous prints and rare manuscripts up until 1914. In August of that year, this national archive of knowledge came to an abrupt end when the invading Imperial German army set fire to it and practically its entire contents.

A wide range of people, including German intellectuals such as Max Liebermann and Max Planck, were utterly baffled, unable to comprehend that this was a deliberate act of destruction. An international campaign raised money and organised book donations and, predominantly with American financial aid, a new library was rebuilt.

This was an enormous achievement of international and, in particular, transatlantic cooperation. But unfortunately, the new building only just reached its 25th birthday before it was bombed in an air raid in 1940 by the German armed forces. 

“In many cases they were rebuilt, only to be destroyed all over again”

This is just one of many similar cases grippingly described by Richard Ovenden, head librarian of the Bodleian Library at Oxford university, in his newly translated book of how libraries and archives have been destroyed through the ages since the dawn of time. 

Seen from a global historical perspective, armed soldiers and fire have destroyed more libraries and archives over time than we would care to admit. In many cases they were rebuilt, only to be destroyed all over again. And although many manuscripts were lost throughout the ages through sheer carelessness, air raids took place in a matter of seconds, causing irrevocable losses.  

Besides this, there have been many cases of writers or the administrators of their estates deliberately burning or shredding manuscripts, diaries or correspondence. After the death of the English poet, Lord Byron, in 1824, a controversy reigned over whether his permissive memoirs should be published or not. In the end, his publisher and close friends burned the manuscript; not a trace was left behind as it was the only known copy. 

“There is a long history of writers exercising self-censorship by destroying their manuscripts”

Franz Kafka, who had published little up until his death, left instructions for the executor of his will, Max Brod, to burn everything. Luckily, Brod ignored his wishes and following generations were able to read The Trial, The Castle and numerous short stories by Kafka. 

The poet Philip Parkin, who knew the value of preservation in his function as a librarian, urged his lover to burn his diaries. Betty Mackereth first shredded then burned over thirty volumes of his personal notes.

There is a long history of writers exercising damage limitation or self-censorship by destroying their diaries and manuscripts that is almost as old as writing itself. By all accounts, Virgil’s dying wish was to see his opus magnum, Aeneid, go up in flames, either as an act of modesty or to build his reputation, this is unclear. 

Collecting knowledge is as old as the human ability to communicate, as is proven by evidence found since ancient Mesopotamia. Just as texts steadily amassed in libraries (“liber” comes from the Latin, meaning “relating to books) and archives (“archivum” comes from the Latin for “filing cabinet” and “archaeon” is Greek for “office building”, a place where written records are kept), there is also a long history of their destruction. 

The library of Alexandria was not razed to the ground in an act of violence, however, but declined slowly through consistent neglect. Richard Ovenden warns against such recklessness by showing how libraries and archive institutions in multiple countries are affected by budget cuts and threatened with closure. 

“The digital sphere, however, is fraught with problems: it is at risk of manipulation, monopolisation, and, quite simply, deletion”

Marginalising libraries and archives follows the logic that there is no sense in spending money on expensive rooms when anyone can simply retrieve information on their mobile phones. The digital sphere, however, is fraught with problems: it is at risk of manipulation, monopolisation, and, quite simply, deletion. 

Ovenden tells impressive stories about efforts to save books; about a Lithuanian group formed in 1925 to save the Jewish literary legacy of the region, for example, or the dangers facing the librarians of Sarajevo in 1992.

He debates a case that throws up a number if ethical and legal problems too, the most recent act of archive plundering when tens of thousands of archive files comprising three million pages, were taken from Baghdad to the USA after the American invasion in 2003. The invasion was justified by the lie that Ira possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and the idea that the Iraqi population would greet the occupiers with flowers. In truth, the Americans caused more damage than the ransacking of Baghdad.

ens of thousands of Iraqis were killed. Ovenden does not question the intentions of the prominent activist, Kanan Makiya, who was behind the removal of the archive material and who urged the Americans to invade Iraq. He claims that the archive material that was removed from the country played a similar role to the Stasi files during the GDR.

This theory, however, is not very plausible. The removal of archive files damages the Hague convention agreements of 1907 and 1954, as well as the UNESCO convention of 1970. Saddam Hussein’s regime was supported by the USA up in to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Bringing the material to the USA, therefore means to store it in the country of a formerly active supporter of the regime. 

“The selection, acquisition and cataloguing of materials are never neutral acts, and neither is disposal”

As Ovenden must know the material will be sorted and censored and no American official will ever be found guilty of having supported a tyrannical regime. It is illusory to believe that a fair use of the archive can take place in the foreseeable future.

Putting the material into a public database and making it accessible, as is planned, means that it will not be ensured fair processing; instead, a cycle of accusations and recriminations will start between the two former warring parties. The winner will decide who is allowed access to the material. Ovenden writes: “The selection, acquisition and cataloguing of materials are never neutral acts, and neither are disposal and retention.”

Usual forms of documentation, the collection of manuscripts and books will always remain a risky business. In an era of climate change, the increasing frequency of intense fires and storms can cause devastating damage despite modern library facilities, fire protection and other safety measures. And the digital age presents its own challenges.

This book by an expert at one of the worldwide leading libraries is marked by urgency and passion. Everyone who has an interest in the future of a collective intellectual heritage should take it seriously and start to think about how this heritage can be preserved, especially in times when we have access to so much information at the mere press of a button, but at the same time when the infrastructure of preserving past traces is so fragile that it is in danger of being lost. Ovenden says: “Preservation lies at the heart of it all. Knowledge can be vulnerable, fragile and unstable.” We should always ensure we have access to it.

“Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack”. By Richard Ovenden. Published by John Murray, London, 2020.