Books Reviews

Burning the books by Richard Ovenden

What can the history of cultural destruction tell us about the importance of libraries?

CW: Holocaust, racism

Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden’s begins on the evening of 10 May 1933 in Berlin on Unten den Linden, then as now the cultural heart of Berlin, close to Humboldt University. Groups of students had just looted the neighbouring libraries and bookshops, taking from their shelves the works of ‘Un-German’ writers. Many important books by Jewish, gay and communist authors has been gathered. Then a bonfire was built and when it was ablaze the books were thrown on and burnt as the Nazi Propaganda minister gave a speech praising the ‘symbolic deed’. 

With hindsight we see this day as the precursor of the gradually increased persecution and murder of Jewish people, homosexuals, gypsies and Roma, disabled people and many others during the Holocaust. It is a powerful opener to this book and necessarily makes clear the importance of libraries within open societies. 

From these years, there is a more moving story, less well known but also told within this book, of Jewish intellectuals and librarians working hard to save important Jewish books which had fallen into the hands of the Nazis. 

The Nazis targeted libraries and archives with the explicit aim of destroying Jewish culture and existence. In 1938 Reinhardt Heydrich, a senior Nazi directed forces to take archives and hand them over to the authorities, ahead of Kristalnacht. 

Judaism was a religion of the book and Torahs were targeted in programs both in German and then across Europe.

In 1941, when German forces invaded Russia they marched with librarians and academics whose role was to identify, confiscate and destroy important library collections. The Germans undertook this work seriously. Libraries were taken apart in the search for books. Vilna University Library had its floorboards prised up. By April 1943 they had collected over 280,000 volumes from Riga, Kaunas, Vilna, Minsk and Kiev.

Jewish intellectuals were forced to help organise the material and identify what should be sent to a Nazi institute in Frankfurt and what should be destroyed in a paper mills. The team, called the ‘Paper Brigade’ led by Herman Kruk, Zelig Kalmanovitch and Chaikl Lunski sought to save as many important books as they could. They delayed the sorting work as long as they could and smuggled books back to the ghetto to hide there. Between March 1942 and September 1943, thousands of printed books and tens of thousands of manuscript documents were saved, many stored in a secure underground bunker built by Gershon Abramovitsch. This was also a heartbreaking task, as the team knew that the items they did not save, would be destroyed.

Kruk wrote ‘Kalmanovitch and I don’t know whether we are gravediggers or saviors’. 

In September 1943, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated and most members of the community were murdered, amongst them many members of the ‘Paper Brigade’. But it is thanks to them, and other people like them, that the culture of Jewish communities was saved. It may have disappeared from history. It is a moving tale of heroism that deserves to be better known.

It is also makes clear just how important cultural memory is and what can be at stake. 

Library of Celsus in Ephesus (CC-BY-SA 3.0 Benh Lieu Song)

Ancient Libraries

The library is a place of cliche and metaphor, an interconnected mythology, which privileges its importance and prestige within communities. This symbolism is rooted in ‘classicism’ and is often articulated in the idea of the ‘Library of Alexandria’. 

The Library of Alexandria is often seen to be a universal library, holding all the world’s knowledge. One of the pieces of evidence for this is the Letter of Aristeas, which described how a certain Demetrius worked with Ptolemy I to develop the collection on these lines:

Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the king’s library, received vast sums of money, for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world. By means of purchase and transcription, he carried out, to the best of his ability, the purpose of the king. On one occasion when I was present he was asked, How many thousand books are there in the library? and he replied, ‘More than two hundred thousand, O king, and I shall make endeavour in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of five hundred thousand may be reached.

Many scholars still believe the library contained the whole of Greek literature, or very close to it. Ptolemy II is also the king most often identified as supporting the development of the library.

Its destruction is seen as the symbolic end point of the ancient world. Edward Gibbon elegiacally and powerfully, wrote:

The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and, near twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator, whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice. The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages; and either the zeal or the avarice of the archbishop might have been satiated with the rich spoils which were the reward of his victory.

Edward Gibbon, quoted in Open Learn 

The archbishop was Theophilus, whom Gibbon called “the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood”. He oversaw the closure of the Serapeum, the Great Temple to Serapis in Egypt.

The image of the great Library burning is stamped in many people’s imaginations and yet the stories differ. One version has Caesar burning part of the library, another Emperor Aurelian when he retook the city in 271 CE, another the Christians when they became politically dominant (the account Gibbon follows) and yet another Amir, the first Arabic ruler of Egypt. 

Fire – accidental or intentional – was always a danger for ancient libraries, yet many scholars now consider that water was probably the cause for the library’s destruction. More specifically, the hot and humid atmosphere of the city which slowly damaged books. Papyrus rolls were easily damaged, both from use and if left on the shelves. They needed regularly copying and replacing, as well as repairing. Books could literally deteriorate and if they were not other copies, they would disappear.

Who were these copiers? Librarians? We still know a few of these – Apollonius of Rhodes Callimachus and Eratosthenes are still important cultural figures. The first two are poets. Apollonius wrote an epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts. Callimachus wrote in various styles including ‘Just so’ stories and epigrams. Eratosthenes was a polymath and an expert in various fields. He is said to have calculated the circumference of the planet by measuring the shadow cast in two locations in Egypt and then following some basic geometry he got it. The actual story, as always, is slightly more complicated. 

We might perhaps understand the Mouseion better as a research institute, where a select community of scholars enjoyed common meals, with the library acting in a supporting role.

Later, in Rome, scholars were also hired to help organise libraries. Cicero employed the Greek scholar Tyrannio to organise his library and later his brother’s. Julius Caesar employed Varro to assemble a public library.

Yet, Librarians would be unlikely to copy the books. This was probably done by slaves.

The material production of books was a microcosm of the slave economies of the ancient world. Agricultural slaves likely made the paper from the papyrus reed which grew plentifully in the marshy regions of the Egyptian delta. Educated slaves worked in the public libraries, doing many similar roles to library staff today- organising materials, shelving, cleaning – as well as copying books. 

When Cicero was restoring his library following his return from exile, he requested his friend Atticus send him trained librarian slaves to help him. The slaves added labels to books and may also have built the shelves. 

Libraries were an important part of the ancient knowledge economy, if we can use this wildly anachronistic term. Books were often copied from libraries and some scholars think that libraries acted primarily as repositories of knowledge for educated people to take copies for their own collections. The doctor Galen wrote about this practice, in a recently discovered papyrus taken from a ‘book’ of his letters. 

Libraries were neither then, nor now, neutral spaces of “pure” intellectual investigation. The ancient economy was predicated on slavery, exploitation and war.

Some of the first major libraries in Rome were the spoils of conquest. Most notably, the political leader Sulla brought back part of Aristotle’s library (which had formed the collection for the Lyceum) from Athens. This may have been part of an attempt to make Rome, the intellectual centre of the world. This was not always the case. In 71 CE, when Emperor Titus paraded Torah scrolls following the sack of Jerusalem during the Jewish War he was humiliating and punishing his conquered enemies.

Yet if war was an important source of books, their popularity also rested on the soft power they evoked. In the Hellenistic Period, Pergamon and Alexandria competed for having the best library. In terms of sheer numbers, Alexandria possibly won. According to Plutarch, Mark Anthony gifted this library (then in his control) to Cleopatra to make up for the library destroyed in the flames due to Caesar.

Many stories survive of Alexandria’s less than reputable methods. It is said that ships would be searched for books and rare copies confiscated. Galen claims to have seen the words ‘From the ships’ written in Greek on books in the library. Galen also tells a story that Ptolemy III wanted to copy the original texts of the Greek tragedians from the Athenian state archives, so he persuaded the authorities and put up a massive security to have them brought to Alexandria to be studied and copied by the experts. Then instead of returning the books he kept them and forfeited the money.

Between 30 BCE and 200s CE, around many large public libraries were built in Rome, often a demonstration of political largesse rather than an interest in scholarship. Suetonius says of the Emperor Domitian:

At the beginning of his rule he neglected liberal studies,​ although he provided for having the libraries, which were destroyed by fire,​ renewed at very great expense, seeking everywhere for copies of the lost works, and sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them. Yet he never took any pains to become acquainted with history or poetry, or even to acquiring an ordinarily good style. 

Suetonius, Domitian 20

If the “Library” has worthy aims and draws a prestige from its ancient forebears, then it must recognise that ancient libraries were complex institutions which reflect the societies in which they were built and supported.

South inner panel of the arch of Titus, showing spoils from the Sack of Jerusalem (CC BY-SA 3.0 by Dnalor 01)


Ovenden’s book is not just about how libraries are destroyed, but also how they are built. Where do these collections come from and how are they sustained? 

Many librarians are often linked to the benevolence of individuals. Jefferson’s personal library formed the basis of the (second) Library of Congress and Thomas Bodley donated his library and money to form and sustain the Ashmolean. Both characters were Utopian and inspired by Francis Bacon, the early modern thinker who developed theories around the scientific method and was considered a guiding spirit of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment. Jefferson often used the words ‘Knowledge is Power’, attributed to Bacon. Although his own power rested on his ownership of slaves and his white skin. 

There is also a more sinister subtext in which the destruction of libraries furnishes new institutions. As Ovenden shows, an important collection within the Ashmolean Library comes from the Bishop of Faro’s collection, taken by the Earl of Essex in 1596 when he sacked the city during a military campaign. The Bishop was head of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ and put together the list of banned books. In the 1632 edition, he listed the then librarian of the Bodleian Library. This was to no avail and the books have remained in Oxford’s hands. Requests are regularly made for the return of this collection. Even more recently, the Bodleian received important books taken from Ethiopia from the 1868 British military intervention in Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Even more complex, are those books whose acquisition were the indirect result of colonialism, the imbalance of powers which afforded one country a power over another, even if they did not directly control it. One of the Ashmolean’s most important collections are from the Cairo Genizah. These are a collection of over 400,000 fragments from medieval Cairo that, because they bore the name of G-d, were stored safely in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue. It is now dispersed across many libraries. Many are in Cambridge, and others are held in Manchester. 

In the last year the role that slavery had on libraries and other cultural institutions in the modern world, has become more widely known. Institutions in the West are just coming to terms with this legacy. The symbolism of library destruction plays a role here. Some people have argued that deaccessioning collections would be an act of cultural destruction. This argument privileges a particular set of libraries and diminishes other libraries.

Burning the books is an important reminder of the importance of libraries and archives in today’s media saturated world, where it can be hard not just to counter ‘fake news’, but also to identify what ‘fake news’ has been shared. The advertisements shared by Cambridge Analytica have never been made public, whether the files still exist is unknown by campaigners. 

For Oveden, libraries are vital to open dialogue and provide a diversity of knowledge. Yet how open are libraries for the vast majority of the population. Even within Britain, many of the important libraries are hard to get into. Given practical limitations this is understandable, but when so much is at stake, it is vital knowledge is opened up. 

One of the ways this can be done are Open Principles. Libraries- taken broadly to be the free exchange of quality knowledge or creative work – are of vital importance to creating engaged citizens, accountable institutions and a society able to discuss challenging points, but we must also recognise this is not the end point but the start for Open Societies.

An eye opening and essential book, read it now.

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics