Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack

by Richard Ovenden

Paperback, 2020



Call number



John Murray (2020), Edition: 01, 320 pages

User reviews

LibraryThing member CarltonC
Deeply knowledgeable and fluently written, this is an extremely engaging book about libraries as repositories of knowledge, and the destruction of libraries through declining funding, religious or political conflict.
Richard Ovenden tells a fascinating and enjoyable story, including examples from history starting in Mesopotamia and Alexandria, taking us forward through medieval monastic and university libraries (including the Bodleian of which the author is the librarian), national libraries such as America’s Washington library, to personal libraries saved, or not, for posterity such as Byron’s, Kafka’s, Plath’s and Larkin’s.
The author then details the political destruction, or retention, of libraries in a broader sense, including records created or held by the state, such as the Stasi secret personnel records in East Germany in 1989 and the early 1990’s, political records in Iraq in 2003 and 2013, the country’s library and records in the targeted Serbian destruction of Bosnia’s national library in 1992, and the destruction or removal of colonial records when the colonies of European countries became independent mainly in the second half of the twentieth century.
Ovenden then considers the problems of retaining records now that so much is created online. This part of the book is optimistic in setting out the issues and suggesting an approach to dealing with the current shortfall in funding, especially due to austerity measures.
Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member fastred
Attacks on knowledge, its importance or even relevance are increasingly notable. Such attacks have a long history, and this book explores that history, and its continuing relevance.
LibraryThing member dono421846
The title is a tad misleading: Ovenden does not lay the groundwork of how "knowledge" relates to "books" or other relevant levels, like "information" or "archives." All in all, while solid, this book does not seem to benefit from having been written by a professional librarian as opposed to an interested lay scholar or journalist. In that regard it disappoints. If, however, the reader is happy to do without the deep dive into just what libraries are all about (and does not really care how they are not the same as archives), the stories he relates will satisfy.

For the record, though, I'll throw in a bit of what Ovenden omits. Libraries are at the opposite end of the spectrum from archives, because if archives are important because they are the raw data of interest (e.g., government records, personal diaries, etc.), libraries are full of the reflective works that are written drawing upon that information. It is after this "transmutation," or ingestion, that archival information becomes knowledge. Archives, therefore, contain no knowledge, but only the basis to discern knowledge. Archival records do not speak for themselves, as Ovenden appears to suggest; for their story to emerge they must be studied, collated, compiled, contextualized. The outcomes of that process is "knowledge," and these conclusions are what are found in libraries. For many purposes this is a distinction without a difference, but Ovenden throughout the text displays his primary interest in archival work (it is where he has spent his professional life, not in libraries per se), and thus gives libraries short shrift. Both are relevant and important and worthy of preservation, but arguably no good purpose is served by careless conflation of important distinctions, especially by someone heading one of the premiere university libraries.
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LibraryThing member Tom.Wilson
This book is essentially a global history of the library. Librarians in training should be prescribed this book in their studies to give them a grounding in the long history of preserving knowledge. From the sands of the Middle East to the port of Alexandria, to the monasteries of north-western Europe, and forwards to today, Ovenden moves at a brisk pace in recounting the long history of preserving knowledge from the deluge. Read it and feel a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for the institution of the library in your life. In the age of distraction by digital flotsam and jetsam such a historical grounding, and renewed understanding of the importance of libraries, is needed more than ever before.… (more)


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Physical description

9.13 inches


1529378761 / 9781529378764
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