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Posted on 27 Oct 2020 in Non-Fiction |

RICHARD OVENDEN Burning the Books: A history of knowledge under attack. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Richard Ovenden, head of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, makes the case for libraries and the preservation of knowledge.

Libraries, those repositories of human knowledge, have become a popular subject for writers. Collections built, sacked and resurrected feature in books by Stuart Kells (The Library), Joshua Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), and Susan Orlean (The Library Book). Richard Ovendon revisits many of these stories in Burning the Books, and makes a thoughtful and readable addition to the oeuvre.

Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian, the head of Oxford University’s famous Bodleian Library. His introduction opens with images of the Nazi book-burnings of 1933, then moves on to discuss the UK’s ‘Windrush generation’ and the deliberate destruction of individuals’ landing cards by the Home Office in 2010, thereby erasing information that would have enabled many people to prove their citizenship. Struck by this absurdity, Ovendon wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times linking this decision to the need to preserve the knowledge that underpins an open society.

Ovenden notes that the significance of books and knowledge is understood by those who wish to destroy them as well as the collectors, archivists and librarians who work to preserve and protect them. As he examines different historical episodes, Ovenden builds a case for why libraries and archives are essential for a functioning open society, and how libraries can best be supported in this role despite current political and financial restraints. The book ends with a coda highlighting the five areas of value collections embody that he suggests would be useful for those in power to understand.

Ovenden writes as an authoritative professional, not the least because of the important history of the library he leads and his personal connection to the collections he is writing about. The Bodleian has many links to the events Ovenden describes, including its establishment during the Reformation.

The early chapters of the book look at the libraries of the ancient world and the fragility of the materials stored in them.

It is hard to prove the direct link between the libraries of the ancient world and those of subsequent generations, but it is possible to detect a common human practice of organising and preserving knowledge … What survives is more of an ethos – the ethos that knowledge holds great power, that the pursuit of gathering it and preserving it is a valuable task , and that its loss can be an early warning sign of a decaying civilisation.

The chapter ‘Spoil of the Conqueror’ is the story of the British Army and its deliberate destruction of the American Library of Congress in 1812 and again in 1814. Ovenden uses the story to illustrate the importance of the library to the young democracy and provides the history of how it was rebuilt twice – the second time by acquiring the library of Thomas Jefferson, regarded as the most comprehensive private library in America. Sadly almost half of the collection was destroyed in a fire in 1851. Ovendon uses this chapter to demonstrate how politicians and thinkers understood that a national library was a necessary underpinning of the fledgling democracy.

In ‘How to Disobey Kafka’, Ovenden looks at the concept of curation by examining the archives of Franz Kafka and Philip Larkin. The curators of knowledge make decisions on what to keep and what not to keep, on whether information will be closed or available only to a few or to everyone. Ovenden also considers the consequences of choosing to destroy or preserve a personal archive. Thomas Cromwell’s family chose to destroy his outgoing correspondence: only his incoming correspondence survived. Kafka asked his agent to destroy his unpublished manuscripts, a request that was not met. Philip Larkin, whose papers rest in the Bodleian, dithered over whether to destroy his archive or not. As an academic librarian he understood its importance for future scholarship, but in the end he asked his partner to destroy his personal diaries, which she did.

‘Sarajevo Mon Amour’ recounts the deliberate targeting of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiaries capable of burning fiercely. Snipers were positioned to target those attempting to rescue books, and one young librarian, Aida Buturovic, was murdered by a sniper. Serb militias deliberately targeted libraries, museums and archives, destroying (‘cleansing’) citizenship documents in a deliberate attempt to erase history.

‘Flames of Empire’ examines the Bodleian’s own collection and its links to ‘the theft of knowledge’. These items include the personal library of the Bishop of Faro, which came to the Bodleian as war booty during the wars with Spain. He builds a wider context of colonialism and conquest that led to the archives of former colonies being removed by colonial administrators, and discusses the ethics and difficulties of repatriation.

The book outlines how fragile paper books and documents are and the importance of preservation, as well as defending them against deliberate neglect, which Oveden brands anti-democratic. The final chapters move on to digitisation and access to records of a fragile nature. Again Ovenden argues that the preservation of knowledge is not about the past but the future. He discusses fake news, the role of social media, web archiving and its importance for the future. I found the information about the size of dataset collections of the big social media companies quite staggering, and Ovenden regards it as a critical challenge for the institutions that collect knowledge:

…These sites are dynamic, they change every second, and are presented to each user in a unique and personalised way. We need to archive the communications on the platform itself, and the data transmission that underpins it. The messages are one thing but the ‘likes’, the ‘nudges’ and other social tools that the platforms put in place can tell us a great deal about social behaviour, culture, politics, health and so much more.

Ovenden believes that there is a problem of trust with the major tech companies and that society has created a plethora of data that – even though it was created and shared by individuals – has been privatised.  He cites a 2016 Pew Research report that 78 per cent of American adults regarded their libraries as a source of trustworthy and reliable information. He asks. ‘Can we conceive of a future where the data of individuals is placed in the hands of public institutions, as trusted stewards of public data?’

This is a very cohesive history of books, information and knowledge and the attempts to collect and curate them, made more enjoyable by the author being able to use his library’s collection to illustrate the many ethical conundrums. By examining these key incidents and the strategies of those determined to destroy history and knowledge, Ovenden makes a compelling case for the preservation of, and open access to, information within a very readable social history.

Richard Ovenden Burning the Books: A history of knowledge under attack John Murray 2020 PB 320pp $32.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy Burning the Books from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.