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The director of the famed Bodleian Libraries at Oxford narrates the global history of the willful destruction—and surprising survival—of recorded knowledge over the past three millennia. Libraries and archives have been attacked since ancient times but have been especially threatened in the modern era. Today the knowledge they safeguard faces purposeful destruction and will The director of the famed Bodleian Libraries at Oxford narrates the global history of the willful destruction—and surprising survival—of recorded knowledge over the past three millennia. Libraries and archives have been attacked since ancient times but have been especially threatened in the modern era. Today the knowledge they safeguard faces purposeful destruction and willful neglect; deprived of funding, libraries are fighting for their very existence. Burning the Books recounts the history that brought us to this point. Richard Ovenden describes the deliberate destruction of knowledge held in libraries and archives from ancient Alexandria to contemporary Sarajevo, from smashed Assyrian tablets in Iraq to the destroyed immigration documents of the United Kingdom’s Windrush generation. He examines both the motivations for these acts—political, religious, and cultural—and the broader themes that shape this history. He also looks at attempts to prevent and mitigate attacks on knowledge, exploring the efforts of librarians and archivists to preserve information, often risking their own lives in the process. More than simply repositories for knowledge, libraries and archives inspire and inform citizens. In preserving notions of statehood recorded in such historical documents as the Declaration of Independence, libraries support the state itself. By preserving records of citizenship and records of the rights of citizens as enshrined in legal documents such as the Magna Carta and the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, they support the rule of law. In Burning the Books, Ovenden takes a polemical stance on the social and political importance of the conservation and protection of knowledge, challenging governments in particular, but also society as a whole, to improve public policy and funding for these essential institutions.


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The director of the famed Bodleian Libraries at Oxford narrates the global history of the willful destruction—and surprising survival—of recorded knowledge over the past three millennia. Libraries and archives have been attacked since ancient times but have been especially threatened in the modern era. Today the knowledge they safeguard faces purposeful destruction and will The director of the famed Bodleian Libraries at Oxford narrates the global history of the willful destruction—and surprising survival—of recorded knowledge over the past three millennia. Libraries and archives have been attacked since ancient times but have been especially threatened in the modern era. Today the knowledge they safeguard faces purposeful destruction and willful neglect; deprived of funding, libraries are fighting for their very existence. Burning the Books recounts the history that brought us to this point. Richard Ovenden describes the deliberate destruction of knowledge held in libraries and archives from ancient Alexandria to contemporary Sarajevo, from smashed Assyrian tablets in Iraq to the destroyed immigration documents of the United Kingdom’s Windrush generation. He examines both the motivations for these acts—political, religious, and cultural—and the broader themes that shape this history. He also looks at attempts to prevent and mitigate attacks on knowledge, exploring the efforts of librarians and archivists to preserve information, often risking their own lives in the process. More than simply repositories for knowledge, libraries and archives inspire and inform citizens. In preserving notions of statehood recorded in such historical documents as the Declaration of Independence, libraries support the state itself. By preserving records of citizenship and records of the rights of citizens as enshrined in legal documents such as the Magna Carta and the decisions of the United States Supreme Court, they support the rule of law. In Burning the Books, Ovenden takes a polemical stance on the social and political importance of the conservation and protection of knowledge, challenging governments in particular, but also society as a whole, to improve public policy and funding for these essential institutions.

30 review for Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge

  1. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Howdle

    A somewhat odd book, uneven and with a misleading title. I expected the book to be an account of book burning through the centuries and this seemed to be the case as it started with the Nazis and their destruction of knowledge. Then, not so ... How can a book with the title Burning the Books bypass Savonarola and the infamous Bonfire of Vanities? The book is really a survey of knowledge and how the destruction of knowledge tears the fabric of human history and culture. The book includes some r A somewhat odd book, uneven and with a misleading title. I expected the book to be an account of book burning through the centuries and this seemed to be the case as it started with the Nazis and their destruction of knowledge. Then, not so ... How can a book with the title Burning the Books bypass Savonarola and the infamous Bonfire of Vanities? The book is really a survey of knowledge and how the destruction of knowledge tears the fabric of human history and culture. The book includes some real red-herrings. I looked forward to the burning of Milton's books in Chapter 14 because it was something I knew nothing about and had not come across in wide readings on Milton. Well no, I would not have, because it never happened. The Bodleian could not part with its copies, including a first edition from Milton, and so hid them and removed them from the catalogue, as if burnt! A considerable amount of the book is about digital archiving and its related problems as seen by Ovenden as Librarian at the Bodleian. There are some brilliant chapters (An Ark to Serve Learning, The Paper Brigade, Sarajevo Mon Amour) but the book has a dramatic title that does not fit its low-key academic tone. The book is not a literary conflagration so much as a warm treatise on why the written word must be preserved (as it must) for the future. At times I wanted to laugh: the importance of digitising all of Twitter? How Swiftian! As pointless as Beckett's main character in Rough for Radio who is trying to write down every word of his life. Unfortunately, Ovenden is always too earnest to see the nonsense of some undertakings.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Patrick Sherriff

    An enjoyable, thought-provoking defence of libraries and archives. My proper review is here: https://patricksherriff.com/2020/09/2... An enjoyable, thought-provoking defence of libraries and archives. My proper review is here: https://patricksherriff.com/2020/09/2...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    If things go truly tits-up in November, what books do you think they will put on the pyre first? Leave you choice in the commebnt section, ta! If things go truly tits-up in November, what books do you think they will put on the pyre first? Leave you choice in the commebnt section, ta!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Doc Martin

    We often underestimate the importance of knowledge and its power. Ovenden’s book is a stark reminder focused on the history of how people seek to control or destroy knowledge. Most chilling is the present day. Ovenden highlights, ‘Knowledge in digital form is increasingly created by a relatively small number of very large companies, which are so powerful that the future of cultural memory is under their control, most unwittingly, with consequences and implications that we are only just waking up We often underestimate the importance of knowledge and its power. Ovenden’s book is a stark reminder focused on the history of how people seek to control or destroy knowledge. Most chilling is the present day. Ovenden highlights, ‘Knowledge in digital form is increasingly created by a relatively small number of very large companies, which are so powerful that the future of cultural memory is under their control, most unwittingly, with consequences and implications that we are only just waking up to.’ This was BBC Radio 4’s book of the week (1 September 2020) and an abridged version is available on the BBC Sounds app. A must read or listen. ‘We are drowning in information, but are starved of knowledge.’ John Naisbitt

  5. 4 out of 5

    Translator Monkey

    Finished my ARC in one day. An incredible book, walking us through the pages of history from the Reformation through today's Digital Age, showing us through firsthand accounts only a fraction of the known damage done, and hints at the unknown (and unknowable) amount of damage done, through the intentional destruction of knowledge. A remarkable work.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Carlton

    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 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.

  7. 5 out of 5

    JoJo

    I have given 5 stars not so much for the writing quality, which is fine in itself, but for the subject matter. In this digital world it is so easy to forget about the retention of information/knowledge and how this actions gives power for now and for future views on history. Glad someone is writing about this subject and considering past and future impacts.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Weronika

    The book contains many interesting facts and tells some moving histories, but as a whole it is very underwhelming. First of all, the title could now have been more misleading -- rather than about the burning of books throughout history, the central theme of this (rather chaotic) work is the preservation of organised collections (not necessarily books). But that on its own would not be that bad had the book had some spirit in it. There is something odd about this book: no structure, no defined ai The book contains many interesting facts and tells some moving histories, but as a whole it is very underwhelming. First of all, the title could now have been more misleading -- rather than about the burning of books throughout history, the central theme of this (rather chaotic) work is the preservation of organised collections (not necessarily books). But that on its own would not be that bad had the book had some spirit in it. There is something odd about this book: no structure, no defined aim, no clear target audience? And the writing is all correct on the surface, but there's no spark, no flow, no soul.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kizzia

    I think this is a book everyone should read, both for the history of the destruction of knowledge and the call to action for our future.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Larry D'librarian

    Libraries, those repositories of human knowledge, have become a popular subject for writers. Collections built, sacked and resurrected feature in books by Stuart Kells (The Library), Joshua Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), and Susan Orlean (The Library Book). Richard Ovendon revisits many of these stories in Burning the Books, and makes a thoughtful and readable addition to the oeuvre. Rest of my review here... https://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/r... Libraries, those repositories of human knowledge, have become a popular subject for writers. Collections built, sacked and resurrected feature in books by Stuart Kells (The Library), Joshua Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), and Susan Orlean (The Library Book). Richard Ovendon revisits many of these stories in Burning the Books, and makes a thoughtful and readable addition to the oeuvre. Rest of my review here... https://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/r...

  11. 5 out of 5

    Becca Housden

    The power of accessible knowledge can not be overstated, and this book does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of libraries and archives through history. The relationship between oppression and the destruction of books is pulled sharply into focus. The way the book is structured into different types of destruction works really well. Although it means the chronology doesn’t always line up, and examples such as Byron are repeated, it really drives home the many directions knowledge can The power of accessible knowledge can not be overstated, and this book does an excellent job of highlighting the importance of libraries and archives through history. The relationship between oppression and the destruction of books is pulled sharply into focus. The way the book is structured into different types of destruction works really well. Although it means the chronology doesn’t always line up, and examples such as Byron are repeated, it really drives home the many directions knowledge can be threatened from. I found it to be well written and accessible, and appreciated how the book did not shy away from discussions about colonisation and the theft of objects by imperial powers. The discussion about the digital world and the new threats facing it was really interesting and well written. It’s easy for sections like that to become dated but I don’t believe this section, or the entire book, will fail to be relevant any time soon.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mark Allinson

    A really interesting trip through the history of libraries and archives which told me some new stories about the importance of libraries as historical records in recent decades as well as the longer term past. The history of the rescue of Jewish records in wartime Poland was particularly poignant. The case for funding libraries and archives is powerfully, if repetitively, made.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Farabaugh

    This was an interesting book that made a very good case for the preservation and support of libraries. The area events were better than the modern ones but that may be because they were not as familiar and seemed to have more drama.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Pickle.

    4.25* I made some update / reading progress notes along the way in case you are interested.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kym Andrews

    Extremely interesting and disturbing at the same time. Great for history nerds, book nerds, library nerds. I wish I could make the decision makers read this.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Phidias

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lilja Maria Sæbø

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ron Olsen

  19. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Gusev

  20. 5 out of 5

    Transrodent

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shirley

  22. 5 out of 5

    Adam Orford

  23. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Jenkins

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jodie

  25. 4 out of 5

    Viviane

  26. 5 out of 5

    Charles McDonagh-White

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jean Leary

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ron Olsen

  29. 5 out of 5

    Miss Loves Grammar

  30. 5 out of 5

    jennet wheatstonelllsl Proc

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