Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge

by Richard Ovendon, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020, 308 pp. 
Hardcover, $29.95 ISBN: 978-0-674-24120-6 

“Deliberate” is the key word in the title, Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, by Richard Ovendon. Ovendon’s premise is that over time, the destruction of knowledge has repeatedly and heartbreakingly been a deliberate act; therefore, its preservation must be an equally deliberate act. Each chapter focuses on a specific story of knowledge creation, preservation, and destruction (or some combination thereof). Ovendon’s passion as a scholar, librarian, and bibliophile permeates his descriptions of encounters with ancient and historic texts in the course of his work at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Details about how an item feels in the hand or impacts the eye lend a personal tone to a scholarly survey. While Burning the Books cannot be exhaustive because the creation and destruction of knowledge span centuries and continents, it is admirably comprehensive in chronologic and geographic coverage.  

As Ovendon states in the introduction, “Knowledge can be vulnerable, fragile and unstable” (7). As long as knowledge has been created and recorded, in whatever form, format, or materiality, it has also been destroyed on a spectrum ranging from malicious acts of erasure to neglectful complacency. While stories and imagery of violent destruction may stick best in people’s minds and memories, Ovendon argues that neglect poses a greater threat. Indeed, the library of Alexandria, perhaps the most storied library of all time, was long believed destroyed in a massive, devastating fire. Subsequent research points instead to a slow decline. For Ovendon, its fate serves as “a cautionary tale,” given profound threats such as underfunding, low prioritization, and general disregard, to many storehouses of knowledge today (36). 

Lest the reader believe the most egregious incidents of destruction occurred in a distant past, Ovendon emphasizes the opposite with graphic descriptions of more recent horrors, including the burning of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Baghdad’s National Library. The lack of effort and resources put into protecting such vital knowledge centers shows that neglect and complacency are just as dangerous as fire.  

Ovendon also acknowledges the role of selection in knowledge preservation and destruction. When an individual or group decides what will be preserved and how it will be described, cataloged, and accessed, they are simultaneously deciding what will be discarded or denied a standard of care necessary to prolong its life. The selection/deselection process constitutes an act of power that curates a specific vision of what is and is not preservation worthy. In an example of an abuse of this power, Ovendon outlines instances of the selective destruction of materials from colonial archives documenting criminal behavior. On the other hand, selection can be activism or resistance. One chapter examines Jewish slave laborers under Nazism, for example, forced to sort Jewish books and archives, who risked their lives to select and hide materials so that some precious content, and the slave laborers themselves, might survive. Another chapter looks at Max Brod, one among many throughout history who have been asked by loved ones to act as destroyer. In Brod’s case, it was his dear friend Franz Kafka’s dying wish for all his papers and manuscripts to be burned. Some feel bound to honor such demands. Others choose defiance to ensure the content survives. Through such stories, Ovendon draws attention both to the individuals and institutions responsible—whether by choice, assignment, or happenstance—for preserving knowledge and to the weight of that responsibility.  

Also examined are imperialistic collection practices and ongoing debates around ownership, care, and curation, including at the Bodleian, where materials from the world over are stored and preserved. Whether obtained through outright theft and plunder or saviorism—claiming to save materials otherwise endangered due to political or social instability, poor conditions, insufficient resources, supposed lack of local expertise, etc.—these materials are now “displaced or migrated” (173). The answer to the question Ovendon poses (“Does their removal from the communities that originally owned them count as an act of destruction?”) is usually an emphatic yes (170). Consider the loss of vital context and provenance, of access for original creators and their descendants, and the potential erasure of vital connections to the past. As one solution, Ovendon advocates for the return of the “control over the narrative of history” to members of former colonies, such as when, in 2019, the Bodleian invited representatives of the United Kingdom’s Ethiopian and Eritrean communities to curate an exhibit of materials looted from Magdala during the nineteenth century (181). A worthy starting place, but sometimes physical repatriation must also be considered. 

The last chapters focus on our present and the fragility of digital content that is subject to mismanagement, technological obsolescence, bit rot, and the high costs of storage, metadata, and migration. Ovendon draws a parallel between the current lack of regulation over technology companies and their records with past mismanagement of colonial records. Archives enable accountability. For example, regarding individual rights and privacy, time and again corporations have revealed their loyalty to the bottom-line rather than to the good of society. Yet we imagine these same corporations will properly perform the job of knowledge preservation to maintain in perpetuity their records—as well as our memories, knowledge, and creations. According to Ovendon, digital content must be managed by the same “duty of care” laws and expectations common in other areas (214).  

Throughout this survey Ovendon builds a case against British and other recent governments’ continued negligence in protecting libraries, archives, and museums during conflict, their relentless slashing of funding and resources for those institutions, and their failure to impose controls over the digital sector. He demonstrates how the deliberate destruction of knowledge that we judge as so brutal, inconceivable, and in the past continues to the present moment. When libraries, archives, and their keepers are not prioritized, as is too often the case today, all of society and its future comes under threat. 

Miriam Intrator, Ohio University