At a time when Australia's national cultural institutions struggle through annual government "efficiency" cuts to preserve our national heritage, and access to reliable information is more important than ever, Richard Ovenden's Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack is essential reading.
Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian at Oxford University, heads a library founded in 1602 to be, as Francis Bacon said, "an ark to save learning from the deluge". Now, more than ever, we need to protect and support contemporary arks of knowledge.
Ovenden says the inspiration for Burning the Books came in 2017 when it was revealed that the British Home Office had destroyed the landing cards of the 1948 West Indian "Windrush migrants", which meant they had no evidence of their citizenship, leading to at least 83 people being deported.
The arbitrary culling of archives can thus have unforeseen social and political consequences. The destruction of many libraries and archives has, however, often been intentional. Ovenden traces, with chilling detail, ideological examples of the wiping out of the history of so-called inferior nations.
One of the earliest examples of "culturecide" occurred with the Babylonian destruction of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in 612 BCE. Other examples include the 16th century Protestant Reformation, which resulted in the destruction of 70-80 per cent of European library collections.
The British attack on Washington in 1814 included the burning of the Library of Congress. The supreme example of culturecide comes in the Nazi burning of Jewish and "un-German" books in Berlin on May 10, 1933. Heinrich Heine's words, "Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings" , came true with the Holocaust.
In August 1992, library staff were attacked by Serbian military as they attempted to save books from the burning National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ovenden writes, "Ray Bradbury reminded us in 1953 of the temperature at which paper burns - Fahrenheit 451 - but an entire library takes a long time to be destroyed". In Sarajevo's case, it took three days.
Less obvious destruction comes from continuing neglect. Before the fire in 48BC at the Library of Alexandria, significant damage had already been experienced "through the underfunding, low prioritisation and general disregard".
Ovenden uses this in the context of the huge cuts imposed on English local councils by the Conservative government in the last decade. In 2010, there were 4356 public libraries in Britain, but by 2019 the number had fallen to 3583.
Public libraries provide services to the more disadvantaged in society. In November 2018 a United Nations report confirmed that "public libraries are on the front line of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate".
The problem is not restricted to public libraries. University libraries globally have suffered from significant budget cuts in recent years, while at the same time having to discard, or remotely store physical books, to provide student digital spaces.
The digital deluge poses even more problems of retention for under resourced institutions. The UK National Archives, Ovenden notes, stores only 2-5 per cent of the records generated by a government department. Our national cultural institutions have urgent problems of digital retention and funding.
Vast amounts of data are stored by tech giants, such as Google and Facebook. Ovenden is saddened that "the world's memory has now been outsourced to tech companies without society realising the fact or really being able to comprehend the consequences".
It's no longer necessary to burn a library when the same result can be achieved through the delete key. In 2017, Google-owned YouTube deleted thousands of videos documenting the Syrian civil war. Ovenden notes how the Vote Leave campaign in Britain deleted significant content from its public website, notably the false claim that Brexit would liberate £350 million per week for the NHS. Fortunately, the UK Web Archive had separately captured the website.
George Orwell wrote in 1984, "The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth". Today, that process is increasing, as in the fake news claims in Trump's America, and the systematic book censoring by Chinese authorities of Hong Kong public and school libraries, and bookshops.
In Australia, the funding of libraries, archives and cultural institutions may not be as glamorous to politicians as government grants in marginal seats for sports stadiums, but we all need to be constantly aware, as Ovenden states, "Libraries and archives are central to democracy because they are the storehouses of knowledge and truth".