Duke Humfrey Library, Bodleian Library, Oxford © David Iliff/Flickr

The librarians who saved books from destruction

Libraries are essential reference points for ideas, facts and truth
November 11, 2020

Richard Ovenden argues for the value of libraries as preservers of knowledge. He does so by retelling the stories of libraries under attack. He begins with the destruction of the royal library at Nineveh, jumps to the demise (through neglect, not fire) of the library of Alexandria, and then nods to the role of monasteries in preserving those parts of the classical heritage they did not see fit to obliterate.

These opening chapters—like the rest of the book—are lucidly and engagingly written, but Burning the Books comes into its own with the Reformation. Modern libraries like the Bodleian, Ovenden explains, filled the gaps in “knowledge preservation” that opened up once the monastic libraries had been dissolved. Most of the rest of his book details the efforts of librarians to resist those who would—for reasons of political, national, religious, racial or economic ideology—destroy that over which they have custodianship. We visit Berlin, Palo Alto (via Baghdad), Louvain, Kuala Lumpur, Harare, Sarajevo, the digital fiefs of the internet, and many other places besides. We are shown how hard—sometimes, heroically—librarians have had to work to preserve the written records in their care.

But while the “preservation of knowledge” has a certain grandeur to it, are such formulations part of the problem? When the Oxford authorities instructed Bodleian staff to burn books by Hobbes, Milton, and others in 1683, they did so because their works were thought to be erroneous—not passing peer review. In reflecting that libraries are “an essential point of reference for ideas, facts and truth,” Ovenden seems to get nearer the mark. What libraries preserve is not knowledge, but the partially processed materials—the data, if you will—from which knowledge can be distilled, or within which it can be discovered. Burning the Books is a powerful reminder of why they matter.

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden (John Murray, £20)