Books

What a History of Book-Burning Can Tell Us About Preserving Knowledge Today

An open book is on fire against an orange background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash.

We live in nightmarish times in which the question “what is reality?” is no longer just some philosophical exercise—it’s an emergency. In the era of gaslighting, “alternative facts,” and outright lies, reality is declarative. Cover all that with the rancid soup of pervasive conspiracy theories and you have to fear for the worst. Given all this, I, perhaps in cowardice, looked to a book about libraries and their destruction.

Conspiracy theories are paranoid fantasies made to fit what people want to believe. Libraries are permanent records that can help combat those theories. But they don’t always endure. That’s why they need our fidelity, meaning protection—meaning money. In Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, Richard Ovenden, head librarian at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, chronicles how libraries have served as sanctuaries for knowledge under constant threat, and what that means for the present and the future.

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Ovenden’s book is matter-of-fact in tone, but its historical accounts of the destruction of libraries and the information they contain are harrowing. The destruction of knowledge, it turns out, doesn’t require the embellishment of rhetorical alarmism; the horror speaks for itself. But Ovenden’s enterprise is unique in that it also focuses on how libraries are necessary for knowledge to endure the dual threats of force and neglect. Though he understandably takes a broad view of the matter, let’s not forget libraries’ practical benefits either. Academic libraries are central to inquiry that, in many cases, guides or influences policy for the advancement of the public interest. And public libraries, open to all, have long been a hub for autodidacts, the casually curious, and those without the means to directly access knowledge in fussier, costlier places where privilege predominates. It seems banal to talk about how libraries can lift people up, though maybe that’s because we take them for granted in the first place.

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The problem, however, is that power always seems to be standing in the way of everyone else’s interests. Now, contrary to what it seems like in the U.S. today, knowing things has historically been important to some in power. In ancient Mesopotamia, Assyrian King Ashurbanipal built his Royal Library at Nineveh—but the project was not simply an innocent pursuit of knowledge. The library contained clay tablets taken from neighboring domains. By stripping others of their knowledge, Ashurbanipal made sure his opponents had less access to history, which meant uncertainty in predicting the future. So yes, saying “knowledge is power” is still trite, but it can also be true in a sense.

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Still, Ovenden mostly focuses on the spirit of inquiry as the natural antagonist of power—not a surprise, coming from a librarian—and how power takes umbrage. The Reformation in England in the 16th century was one of the bleakest times in the history of knowledge preservation, according to Ovenden. With knowledge under siege, antiquaries of that time were the last defense against the destruction of books. They were, in the words Ovenden cites from the writer John Earle, “strangely thrifty of times past,” admirers of “the rust of old monuments,” and “enamoured of wrinkles.” They loved things “for being mouldy and worm-eaten” and would sit reading a manuscript “everlastingly, especially if the cover be all moth-eaten.” Burning the Books shows that when knowledge in print is threatened by power, it’s people pledged to the printed page, rather than armies, who step in.

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Perhaps the most notorious book-burners in history are the Nazis, who, like most genocidal regimes, aimed not just to degrade but to annihilate a people and any record of them. Ovenden provides a powerful account in the book of the Jewish residents of Vilna (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) in the first half of the 20th century. After Hitler captured the city in 1941, a group of biblio-smugglers known locally as the “Paper Brigade” began secretly moving as many books and documents as they could to safety, wherever they could find it, in the Vilna Ghetto. Tragically, most of the Paper Brigade was put into forced labor or murdered in the final phases of the Nazi occupation, but all was not lost. After the Nazis were routed, a museum of Jewish culture was founded in Vilna, under Soviet auspices, and previously hidden “potato sacks full of books and documents began to arrive.” It was a testament to the heroism of martyrs protecting knowledge against the organized erasure of a people.

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Of course, not all struggles to preserve knowledge are against ruthless regimes. In fact, Ovenden is particularly interested in a less vicious but still important struggle: how digital data can be archived for public record, and how to obtain it. One problem is that a lot of the data that tech companies hold isn’t available to the public at all. It’s a permanent record in private hands, and that should scare anyone. What might be most important, however, is how libraries could preserve that data in the public interest. Elaborating on a focus of the book, Ovenden told me that “we are in danger of skipping the preservation of much of the most useful and interesting knowledge because it is ‘invisible.’ ”

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“Many of us don’t know it exists at all,” he said. “I am referring to the data which drives the ad tech industry, and which is used to build data profiles on all of us, and now we know was used to influence the 2016 U.S. election via Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Archiving that data, which is traded constantly, and which we have generated through our online behavior, would be of huge importance for society.”

Ovenden sees a role for libraries in archiving that data, and the public would be well served to view knowledge in print or digital form as deserving, even requiring, sanctuary. That costs money, though. Many wealthy and powerful people will then ask (as they do about anything in the public interest): How are you going to pay for that? Unsurprisingly, the White House has kept pushing cuts to federal funding of libraries, and local library funding most everywhere in the U.S. is vulnerable when budgets are stretched. Governments could charge a “memory tax” of as little as 0.5 percent on the profits of tech companies, Ovenden suggests, which could create the funding libraries and archives need to preserve digital data. That’s a start. But then there’s the larger question of funding libraries in total for the long term—a question existing only due to the pervasive vice of short-term thinking.

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When it’s not a tyrant or an invading army, it’s a lack of funding that threatens libraries. They’re foundational to social memory, which is central to identity, which is central to community. Libraries protect the vulnerable past, that fragile tapestry of memory, from the chomping maw of profit and power. The future is possible, but only if knowledge prevails. Reading Burning the Books made clear to me just how vulnerable libraries really are. When we don’t properly fund them, we risk lies becoming the truth, and the truth becoming a joke.

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