The Destruction of Libraries: Book Reviews

[Written at the request of my alma mater for their project, “Books and Destruction: Honoring Banned Books Week,” during August 2015.]

Libraries and archives are frequent targets in war and conflict. Institutions that support the rule of law, encourage the exploration of ideas and identity, and stand for intellectual freedom are a grace threat to regimes that seek to control all aspects of public and private life.

The number of books that address this topic is, sadly, growing. Rebecca Knuth’s two most recent books, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, deserve attention for their thorough scholarship and attention to current events. Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity, an essay collection edited by James Raven, might be read back to back with Lucien Polastron’s Books on Fire: the Destruction of Libraries Throughout History, which is both thoroughly researched and deeply felt. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez may deserve a reader’s first attention, though. It is a comprehensive and provocative starting place, for one, but it is also a book that has been widely read in translation, which makes it a particularly fitting introduction to a problem that so often emerges from the fractured relations between nations.

Báez has written a short, perhaps overwhelming book, dense with detail and broad in scope. A Universal History opens and closes with depictions of the destruction and looting of books, manuscripts and art in Iraq’s National Library in 2003, scenes that prompt the author to investigate the long history of destroying libraries. Báez focuses on intentional acts – the desire of one group to eradicate the memory, cultures, or religion of another – but also describes the role of impersonal disasters, man-made and natural. (Báez wrote an earlier book, The History of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, that contends with some of these same questions.) Alongside this history of loss, there is some interesting material on remembrance of lost works through quotation and citation, and a consideration of “bibliocasts”, book destroyers, in fiction, including Don Quixote and Fahrenheit 451.

These works all take a somewhat scholarly bent, but several books targeted at younger readers tell the stories of protecting libraries, as well. Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books, by Susan L Roth, conveys the events of January 2011, when thousands of Egyptian students, librarians, and demonstrators joined hands around the Library of Alexandria to protect it from destruction. Two others – Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq, by Mark Alan Stamaty and The librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, by Jeanette Winter – relate how Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of the Central Library in Basra, smuggled 30,000 books to safety in war-torn Iraq.

The protection of cultural heritage during conflict is just as pressing now as it was in antiquity. Daesh (the so-called Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL) is actively looting and destroying archaeological sites. Libraries and manuscript repositories throughout the Middle East are under threat. Natural disasters like Katrina and Sandy pose a constant and increasingly common threat to collections worldwide. Just reading one of these books alone may only break your heart, but doing what librarians do best, passing these books from one reader to another, building awareness and focusing attention, may be an important part of the solution.