In Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantasy novel The Buried Giant, a great mist erases the collective memory, leaving the story’s characters “unable to access the past and with it to move forward into the future” [1]. The idea of collective forgetting is almost impossible to imagine in our own world, with the unfathomable amount of information available on the web. And yet to bastardise a Cecil Null line, humans have forgotten more than the web will ever know. Reflecting on this is no bad thing; doing something about it is even better.

In the Google-age, knowledge is increasingly privatised, and unfortunately, knowledge appears to have a shelf-life. Yahoo proved this when it deleted over 35 million pages of Geocities in 2009. Ten years later, Flickr decided to limit its free hosting and, in the process, trashed an eye-watering number of its users’ photos permanently. If only there were institutions with long-established histories of protecting knowledge and making it as accessible to the world as possible… Wait a minute, I have an idea!

Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden book cover

Ok, I am a librarian so my answer to almost any problem is ‘the library?’ but in this case, I might be right. Of course, libraries themselves haven’t always been able to ensure knowledge’s safe passage from one generation to the next. In Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack (2020), Richard Ovenden highlights historical examples of knowledge being destroyed in a number of ways. Bodley’s Librarian (the senior Executive position of the Bodleian Libraries), there are few people better placed to discuss the preservation of knowledge than Ovenden.

From the great library of Alexandria to the Nazi book burnings via Louvain and the personal papers of literary heroes, Burning the Books is a whistle stop tour of selected crimes against knowledge. Ovenden is at pains to emphasise that it is not simply a case of knowledge being wilfully erased by acts of violence (although it often is) but also by individuals choosing to have their personal histories remain private, or societies letting the institutions that guard knowledge go to waste through disinterest and lack of funding. The heartfelt efforts of Bosnian library staff who risked their lives in an attempt to guard their stock from Serbian military bombardments provokes visceral emotions, but so too does the thought of literary figures like Kafka, Byron, and Larkin trying to destroy their personal papers, or of the many libraries that have been lost during the recent age of Austerity. Because the truth is, once lost, knowledge is no longer knowledge – failure to care for what we learn as a species is no better than never pursuing knowledge in the first place.

Each chapter of Burning the Books looks at a different instance of knowledge under attack. Yes, there are many historical examples not touched on here, but what is covered builds the case for libraries and archives, and allows Ovenden to work towards the coda he provides in the final pages of the book. So while not exhaustive, Burning the Books explores the different ways that knowledge may be lost and allows stories of individuals to come to the fore. Each scenario is explained in a comforting level of detail but I recognise that for some readers, less handholding and a broader range of examples may be preferable. I am not one of those, though. For me, Ovenden has produced a compelling account of repeated failures to value knowledge by some and heroic efforts to protect it by others.

To understand many of the attacks on knowledge, one has to understand the context in which they took place. In Sarajevo, the Serbian military were engaged in the erasure of Bosnian Muslims – culture, people, even gravestones. Kenan Slinic, Sarajevo fire chief, summed up the attack on Bosnia’s National Library thus: “I was born here and they are burning a part of me.” In Nazi Germany, many books by Jewish authors or on un-German topics were burned. As the saying goes, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Of course, Heinrich Heine wrote this phrase more than a century before the book burnings of 1933. The attack on knowledge - on memory - is not a new phenomenon, then. Just as there was a desire to leave no evidence that Bosnian Muslims had ever been a part of the country in 1992, in Tudor England, Henry VIII waged war on the monasteries and their collections, wishing to excise all traces of Roman influence in England.

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For all that the thought of books burning creates a strong emotional response, it seems to me, the greatest challenge set out by Burning the Books doesn’t relate to books at all but to the mass of information generated in the digital world. For keeping historical papers safe is one thing but attempting to archive and make retrievable the world wide web is a daunting task, even to the most optimistic librarian. After all, so long as one knows the language, the written word – whether it be on cuneiform tablets, papyrus, parchment, or in book form – remains intelligible to anyone who wishes to read it. Whether anyone will be able to access a Wordpress blog in 200 hundred years’ time to read the work of tomorrow’s Great Authors is quite a different question. And that is before one even begins to tackle the issue of so much of the web’s content being owned / hosted by private companies.

Whatever the challenge, throughout the book Ovenden’s message is clear: the preservation of knowledge matters and thus libraries and archives matter. Looking back at the most referenced story of a library’s destruction, Ovenden reframes the common conception that Alexandria was destroyed through a blazing fire and instead labels its demise as a “cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritisation and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge”. There is very little doubt that this sentiment also applies to libraries and archives across the UK today. We might not be able to change the history of how knowledge has been preserved, but those of us around today can change the future. After all, it is our collective memory that is at stake.

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