I was very lucky to be selected to take part in the Wolfson History Prize shortlist blog tour, for the third year. I reviewed “Birds in the Ancient Word” in 2019 and the prize-winning “The Boundless Sea” last year, and this year I was able to choose Richard Ovenden’s “Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack”. Ovenden is director of the Bodleian Library and this book offers both a history of all kinds of knowledge under attack (and protected) and also a call to action which is very powerful.

Richard Ovenden – “Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack”

Should libraries and archives still have a role to play in stewarding digital memory from one generation to the next as they have done since the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia? (p. 198)

Richard Ovenden has been Bodley’s Librarian since 2014, having moved to the Bodleian in Oxford in 2003. He’s also involved with various high-level library and information management committees and coalitions, and this all, coupled with his obvious enthusiasm and passion for preservation and the work of his fellow librarians gives him the all-round ability to research and write this book. It’s not just a work of history – although that would be enough – but a work for the future and a call to action, a call to arms, even.

The Introduction opens with the first thing you probably think of with regard to book burning, with a bonfire in Berlin on 10 May 1933, and quickly relates this to the challenges to the rule of law, open society and the truth itself that are happening today. The impetus for the book in fact came from the discovery that landing cards documenting the arrival in the UK of the “Windrush Generation” had been systematically and deliberately destroyed, the resulting difficulty in proving citizenship destroying people’s lives. There is then a description of how “storehouses of knowledge have been at the heart of the development of societies from their inception” (p. 7), even though formats and methods of storage have changed, also reminding us how fragile most of these formats are, from papyrus that can be damaged by fire, water or mould to digital materials that need the relevant readers or disappear from the web. Ovenden sets out his stall here: he will examine individual cases which tell us about the period in which the event took place and show the motivation of states to destroy archives and the heroism of those who seek to prevent that destruction.

The book follows an essentially linear timeline, starting off with the clay tablets of ancient times and how they were located, excavated and shipped off to Western museums for examination. The development of metadata is studied alongside that of collection development – even the earliest clay tablets have colophons distinguishing their content from one another. It’s a true librarian who will write about this aspect and I loved it, just as I very much liked the frequent references to the role and contents of the Bodleian Library itself.

Of course the iconic “fire in the Library of Alexandria” is examined – but of course it’s not as simple as we might think, and Ovenden unpicks the records and commentary with assurance to show us a more realistic picture than the one we might have. There is detail on the effect of the Reformation with testimony of the work of the people who saved as much as they could at this time, transferring them to secular friends or collectors. This leads on to a chapter on the work of Thomas Bodley himself, and Oxford University library itself.

Moving over to the US, we look at the burning of the Library of Congress, part of some somewhat complicated history I had to look up (there is so much in this book that Ovenden can’t explain every detail of the historical background, and nor should he have to; he certainly gives us enough information to be able to look it up for ourselves). I really like the world focus of the book, while often circling back to mention the role of the Bodleian in particular or librarians in general. After this, we get some very interesting chapters on personal archives and what to do with them – if an executor is instructed to burn works of literary merit in a writer’s will, should they? We look here at Byron and Kafka, Larkin and Ted Hughes and their attitudes to their work and archives. This takes a fascinating different focus and adds depth and breadth to the book.

Between these chronological sections, we move back to war and distressing episodes where Louvain University Library in the First and Second World Wars was burned on purpose, and then, even worse of course, the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of Jewish scholarship in so many places, set in the context of religion-based destruction, and here focusing on the “Paper Brigade” who saved book and archive materials in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Post-war discussion covers the destruction of the libraries in Sarajevo, the forced removal of books and archives from country to country (this chapter ranges back again in history and this all keeps things interesting). The use of texts and archives in reparation and healing is covered here, too – how wide-ranging this book is! Attention is paid through the text to matters of historical context and omissions, for example the “silences” in library collections that have limited how the historical record covers people of colour or women. Throughout the book there is a thread looking at colonial or other acts where a country’s sometimes most sacred texts are removed from them and taken to another country, or destroyed in order to destroy a rival culture.

Looking at the digital age in the last 40 pages, Ovenden talks about how libraries and archives have coped with the “digital deluge” and especially the multiple formats digital information takes, and how dangerous it can be if archiving is done and controlled by only private organisations, as is becoming the case nowadays.

Ovenden clearly believes the answer to the question at the top of this review is “yes” and has a look at legal deposit rules and the people archiving the Internet, something he doesn’t think should be just done by a small and private organisation. The datasets created by big tech companies also need to be saved and searchable, as society needs those records “to be able to understand what our culture is doing today” (p. 211)

This is followed by an urgent call away from complacency and towards libraries regaining a role in the preservation of knowledge and archives. This includes professional bodies shouting more loudly and communities shouting on behalf of them. He has solutions to the funding of a public collection of knowledge which makes sense, although I’m not sure it will happen. The coda, “Why We Will Always Need Libraries and Archives”, includes five functions of libraries and archives that we will lose if we lose or destroy libraries and archives, including their roles in supporting education and rooting societies in their cultural and historical identities. Very much not “just” a history book, this book offers a strong call which I hope will be heeded by those in charge of policy and finance.

The books shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2021 are:

  • Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (Yale University Press) by Rebecca Clifford
  • Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (Allen Lane) by Sudhir Hazareesingh
  • Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Allen Lane) by Judith Herrin
  • Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury) by Helen McCarthy
  • Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack (John Murray Press) by Richard Ovenden
  • Atlantic Wars: From the Fifteenth Century to the Age of Revolution (Oxford University Press) by Geoffrey Plank

Thank you to Ben from Midas PR for arranging for me to take part in this blog tour again in return for an honest review.