Preserving the Archive

An absorbing history of concerted attacks on knowledge, from book burning to bureaucratic neglect.

By Peter B. KaufmanMarch 28, 2021

Preserving the Archive

Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. 320 pages.

IN 1953, BALLANTINE BOOKS asked its publicity department to spend a little extra money to promote a new novel in their lineup. Publicity thought for a while and then asked the production department to manufacture about 200 copies of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian portrait of a world gone mad, with a special asbestos binding. A gift edition! In the novel, reading is forbidden, and books are banned; “firemen” are men who show up at the front door of your house to torch your library. Hey, it was a heady time. The H-bomb. The Crucible. McCarthy. Fire was in the air.

Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge is a new account — and not a novel — of attacks on knowledge; its author, Richard Ovenden, is director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. The book opens on May 10, 1933, with a bonfire raging on the Unter den Linden in Hitler’s Berlin. Students are chucking books by Jewish authors onto the pyre while surrounded by 40,000 cheering Germans, some of them soldiers in new Nazi uniforms barking out their Sieg Heil salutes. (This event was the inspiration for Bradbury’s novel: paper ignites at 451 degrees.) In the time it takes to read the book’s first page, Ovenden’s reader is alerted to the fact that — whoosh! — burning books is just a shade away from burning people.

From the opening, highly cinematic scene in Berlin (part of “the most concerted and well-resourced eradication of books in history”), Ovenden leads us on a 300-page, 3,000-year-long tour backward and forward through time, turning a spotlight on human depredation and depravity. Burning the Books takes us backward first, way back, to the seventh century BCE and Assyrian King Ashurbanipal’s sprawling library in Nineveh, near Mosul in what is today’s Iraq. Ashurbanipal’s library was “perhaps the first attempt,” Ovenden tells us, “to assemble under one roof the entire corpus of collectable knowledge that could be assembled at the time.” We then fast-forward to the third century BCE and the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, established by the Ptolemaic pharaohs, pausing to share Ovenden’s awe at the size, breadth, and depth of these ancient collections, and at the ambitions of the men who directed their construction, acquisition practices (pillaging, mainly), and curation. The great mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers of the ancient world — Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Euclid, Galen — worked in the Library of Alexandria; indeed, “many of the intellectual breakthroughs that modern civilization is based on,” Ovenden writes, “can be traced to their work.” Then we watch as these and other libraries are sacked, burned, and plundered — with most of the unique scrolls in Alexandria, by one contemporary account, set afire by a marauding caliph in order to heat the water for his soldiers to better enjoy the local baths.

We are not left to loiter in the ancient world for long. There’s a lot of “deliberate destruction of knowledge” to attend to in the modern world, after all. And Ovenden knows where to find it, as his 15 highly detailed chapters show. He describes Medieval papal edicts directing all Catholics to seek out and destroy the Talmud and other “heretical” literature, goes into some depth on the Reformation, and examines the burning of the first Library of Congress by an invading British army in 1814:

The sky was brilliantly illumined by the different conflagrations; and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face. […] I do not recollect to have witnessed, at any period of my life, a scene more striking or more sublime.

He introduces us to the underground World War II “Paper Brigade” and its relentless efforts to rescue Jewish heritage from systematic plunder by the Nazis. He brings the receipts for how European imperialists systematically destroyed the knowledge of the nations they colonized — with case studies including Algeria, Ceylon, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. He takes us to see the 20th-century bombing of the national library of Serbia. There are mind-bending, mesmerizing scenes throughout. Picture the same library targeted and burned repeatedly over centuries in Louvain, Belgium; church organs unable to play properly after World War II because partisans had saved Judaica by hiding books in their pipes; or charred pages from Sarajevo’s burnt books fluttering down from the sky for days after the bombing, resembling — in the memorable phrase of one Bosnian chronicler — so many “black birds.”

In short, whether we are looking at history ancient or modern, the wicked behavior is the same. And those seeking to destroy accumulated knowledge do not only deploy violent methods. One of the subtle themes in the book is how long-term destructive behavior toward learning and knowledge manifests itself — not as book-burning so much as a slow and metaphorical burn. Ovenden describes cases of the destruction of knowledge due to gradual organizational neglect; a “lack of oversight, leadership, and investment”; and the “underfunding, low prioritization, and general disregard for” institutions that preserve and share knowledge — savage indictments of a kind of bureaucratic destruction that read like office memoranda from the present day.

But our wickedness, mercifully, is only one side of his story. “This book has been written not just to highlight the destruction of […] institutions in the past,” Ovenden tells us, “but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back.” The stories of colonies fighting to recover and repatriate their archives, of citizens in former East Germany rescuing and then investigating their Stasi files, of the Paper Brigade and other preservationists, are, just like the great libraries themselves, awe-inspiring. Ovenden’s book also includes a section on struggles involving writers, such as Franz Kafka and Sylvia Plath, who directed that their unpublished manuscripts be burned and the controversial decisions taken, sometimes against their wishes, by their literary executors.

Why protect all these archives, and how? It’s no accident that the etymology of the word “archive” comes from the Greek ἄρχω — to rule, govern — and no accident that it shares the same root as the word for monarch, autarchy, and hierarchy. Archives started in the “archon,” the seat of government, and the power of the archive may well become the story of our 21st century. One wonders whether the great human rights codicils of the previous century — the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, or the international declarations on freedom of internet speech that have followed — should not have a special update underscoring the sanctity of our archives.

To that end, Ovenden’s work concludes with a brief “coda” outlining five key principles — “five functions of libraries and archives” — addressed “to the holders of power.” They are, first, that libraries and archives should have a powerful educational role; second, that they should provide a diversity of ideas; third, that they should “support the well-being of citizens and the principles of an open society” (especially “integrity in decision-making”); fourth, and these days so important, that they should offer “a fixed reference point allowing truth and falsehood to be held to account through verification, citation and reproducibility”; and fifth, that they should help “root societies in their cultural and historical identities through preserving the written record of those societies and cultures.” As he concludes:

A hundred years from now, historians, political scientists, climate scientists and others will be looking for the answer to how the world in 2120 has come to be the way it is. There is still time for libraries and archives to take control of these digital bodies of knowledge in the early twenty-first century, to preserve this knowledge from attack, and in so doing, to protect society itself.

If there are to be criticisms of the book, one fault may be that there is too little discussion of other media, including television, film, radio, and the web. The “written” record, after all, is not the only medium of record any more. Television archives are also part of the public record now, and as a result, our audiovisual history — and access to it — is becoming more and more important. Also, more could have been said about the project of systematically digitizing culture and knowledge, so that we can fixate less on the physical artifact of the book (or manuscript or scroll) and more on collecting and curating what’s inside of them.

Like Bradbury, Ovenden does look at a future distant from today — in fact, at one point in the book, 500 years from now. By that time, we may have veered back to oral, or aural, modes of storytelling, much like they do at the end of Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury has said that the real bane of his novel was not state censorship or thought control, but television, which was then beginning its infestation of our consciousness. (François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of the novel has some frightening scenes in which renegade families hide their books inside television sets, and the firemen torch them both.) As Ovenden observes, the fight over control of human thought and expression will take new forms as our culture evolves. In the meantime, old copies of the asbestos edition of Bradbury’s novel, toxic artifacts though they are, today sell at auction for over $10,000.


Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning. His book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, was published in February.

LARB Contributor

Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and The Fight to Free Knowledge (2021). His book The Moving Image: A User’s Guide comes out from the MIT Press in 2025.


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