London, John Murray, 2020, ISBN: 9781529378757; 308pp.; Price: £20.00
Waltham, MA, Brandeis University Press, 2019, ISBN: 9781512603095; 284pp.; Price: £23.15
University of Manchester
Date accessed: 24 June, 2021
The burning of books is a highly emotive subject. The Nazis’ bonfires of Jewish books and other ‘degenerate’ literature in 1933 horrify, and not only because they presaged the incinerators of the Holocaust. From the paradigmatic (and, we learn, probably apocryphal) conflagration of the ancient library of Alexandria, which consumed most of the corpus of Classical literature, to the torching of the Baghdad National Library following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the destruction of books (and archives) seems to shock more than the loss of any other form of material culture. Why should this be? Although Richard Ovenden does not directly address the question in his excellent Burning the Books, the answer may lie both in the unparalleled capacity of books and archives to preserve the past—they constitute our collective memory—and in their limitless potential to generate new knowledge, Milton’s ‘potencie of life’. Perhaps, as Sappho’s enigmatic ‘you burn me’ fragment intimates, something of ourselves perishes in the destruction of books.
Burning the Books, which has justly garnered considerable critical and popular attention, eloquently and powerfully describes numerous attacks upon knowledge across four millennia, from the destruction of Ashurbanipal’s cuneiform library in 621 BCE to the ‘Windrush’ scandal of 2010 when Home Office officials were revealed to have destroyed records that would have proved migrants’ entitlement to British citizenship. While Burning the Books may not break new ground in the scholarship on libraries and book history—it largely draws upon existing literature—it is meticulously researched and referenced, compellingly argued, and likely to prove a landmark in the history of libraries and the preservation of knowledge.
Ovenden’s examples are carefully chosen to illustrate particular motivations and contexts for the destruction of knowledge. Chapter 3 narrates the dispersal of English monastic libraries in the name of religious reformation and Henry VIII’s fiscal incontinence. The statistics are shocking: ‘between 70 and 80 per cent of the contents of the pre-Reformation libraries of the British Isles were lost’ (p. 70). A key theme running through Burning the Books is the impact of imperialism and military campaigns upon libraries and archives. The ill-starred library of the Université Catholique de Louvain was twice destroyed by German forces (Chapter 7). Outrage at its loss in 1914 led to an international campaign to rebuild and restock the library, led in Britain by Henry Guppy of the John Rylands Library. These efforts were in vain for, tragically, the library was destroyed again in 1940. However, these attacks upon knowledge pale in comparison to the Nazis’ systematic destruction of Jewish libraries and archives throughout Europe, discussed in Chapter 8. Ovenden cites Jonathan Rose’s estimate that over one hundred million books were destroyed during the Holocaust (p. 119n1). Such statistics can overwhelm, and Ovenden therefore focuses on one library in one city in eastern Europe, the Mattityahu Strashun Library in Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania, which is discussed in greater detail below.
Cultural ‘cleansing’ reared its head again in Bosnia during the civil war of the 1990s, which is the subject of Chapter 10. Again, there was an attempt systematically to eradicate a culture and literally to rewrite history through the targeted destruction of libraries and archives that preserved centuries-old records of Muslim communities and their rich cultural heritage. The scale of the losses was appalling:
In all, it is estimated that 480,000 metres of archives and manuscripts held in institutional collections across Bosnia and around 2 million volumes of printed books were destroyed in the conflict. (p. 159)
Lest readers suppose that Britain adopted a more enlightened approach, Burning the Books is littered with examples of English/British imperialism’s destruction or appropriation of libraries and archives. They span from 1596 when the Bishop of Faro’s library was plundered by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who then donated the books to the embryonic Bodleian Library, to the end of Empire, when large quantities of colonial archives in Malaysia were destroyed ‘to hide the racist and prejudiced behaviour of the former colonial officials’ (p. 176). Exactly 100 years before the first destruction of the Louvain library at the hands of German forces, British troops set fire to the infant Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Literary archives are particularly susceptible to the flames of oblivion, whether committed by authors themselves as ‘a kind of extreme self-editing’ (p. 95) or by those wishing to protect—or manipulate—their reputations. Ovenden contrasts the famous incident when Byron’s friends consigned the manuscript of his memoirs to the drawing-room fireplace of his publisher, John Murray, and Ted Hughes’s notorious destruction of Sylvia Plath’s journals, with Max Brod’s defiance of Kafka’s instructions to destroy his papers. Who was right? Ovenden refuses to be drawn, but he does point out an alternative option: the transfer of papers to a public repository, subject to temporary closure:
Working in a library that measures time in centuries, one answer to these questions is, perhaps, to take a long view. The stacks of the Bodleian are full of manuscripts that are ‘closed’. (p. 151)
Indeed, Burning the Books is as much as about the preservation of knowledge as it is about its destruction. Throughout its pages we witness individual acts of extreme heroism: the endeavours of the Jewish ‘Paper Brigade’ to smuggle books from the Strashun Library into the Vilna Ghetto on pain of death, or Aida Buturović, the young librarian killed by a Serbian sniper while she was trying to rescue materials from the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. Yet Burning the Books is also a homage to the everyday heroism of dedicated (but often poorly remunerated) librarians and archivists who work tirelessly to preserve knowledge:
This book has been written not just to highlight the destruction of those institutions in the past, but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back. It is through their work that knowledge has passed down from one generation to the next, preserved so that people and society can develop and seek inspiration from that knowledge. (p. 14)
One of the triumphs of Burning the Books is that it shines a penetrating light upon the essential preservation duties of librarians and archivists, whose work has hitherto been discussed primarily in the professional and academic literature. Ovenden issues a challenge both to information professionals and to their employers and funders. In their endeavours to open institutions up to new audiences in the name of ‘access’ and ‘engagement’, Ovenden claims that librarians and archivists have perforce downplayed, if not neglected, their core duty to preserve knowledge, which increasingly means digital knowledge. Ovenden advocates for libraries and archives as repositories of collective memory: librarians and archivists are the guardians of truth, ‘collecting knowledge in both analogue and digital form. Without them, with their mixture of skills, dedication and passion for preservation, we will continue to lose knowledge.’ (p. 219) Moreover, Ovenden deplores the gross neglect of publicly funded libraries and archives over the last decade, in the UK and elsewhere, which has undermined their ability to tackle the unprecedented challenge of digital preservation:
Preservation should be seen as a service to society, for it underpins integrity, a sense of place and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory. Libraries and archives are highly trusted by the general public, yet they are experiencing declining levels of funding. (p. 223)
A complimentary copy of Burning the Books should be distributed to every politician and policy maker, to press home this message.
Ovenden offers two practical suggestions to address the digital preservation challenge: first, greater cooperation between libraries, following the example of the UK Web Archive initiative, of which the Bodleian Library is a partner; and, secondly, a ‘memory tax’ levied on the profits of internet giants such as Google and Amazon (p. 222). Whether the political will exists to achieve this goal at an international level is a moot point, but the end of the Trump Presidency offers a glimmer of hope.
One of the pleasures of Burning the Books is the insights it provides into its author’s personal and professional motivations. Ovenden writes with the conviction born of personal experience, from the many hours he spent in Deal Public Library studying during his teenage years, to his professional involvement in digital preservation initiatives since the early 2000s. As 25th Bodley’s Librarian, Ovenden enjoys unrivalled access to the extraordinary riches of that ‘ark of learning’. The reader is drawn in by his contagious enthusiasm for the treasures in his keeping, as he evokes the multisensory experience of handling such precious volumes as the 1,000-year-old St Dunstan’s Classbook (‘soft, thick and almost velvety to the touch’, p. 52) and the Romance of Alexander (‘this volume still sends a shiver of delight down my spine’, p. 69).
Yet Ovenden is more reticent when it comes to some of the controversial issues that Burning the Books touches upon, such as the continued custody of Iraqi state archives by the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, and the case for repatriating the manuscripts and other treasures that victorious British forces looted from Magdala in Ethiopia in 1868. Ovenden regrets the continued exile of the Iraqi archives, but does not explicitly call for their return, since ‘[t]he geopolitical situation in the region has not made this possible’ (p. 195). The Magdala manuscripts are now found in the British Library and other institutions, including the Bodleian and Manchester’s John Rylands Library (where this reviewer is employed and is thus implicated in this challenging issue). Perhaps Ovenden is right to leave readers to reach their own conclusions on these matters, but an intimation of where he stands would have been welcome. He argues that ‘the communities from which these materials have been removed should be allowed to take control of the narrative of history once again’, but what would this mean in practice? Libraries and archives in the West have hitherto largely failed to address issues of cultural repatriation and the legacies of empire; we need to follow the example of (some) museums in confronting these challenges.
Burning the Books concludes with a coda, ‘Why we will always need libraries and archives’. Ovenden makes a powerful case for the continued relevance of repositories of knowledge, including their vital importance in supporting education, providing a diversity of knowledge and ideas, sustaining wellbeing and the principles of open society, encouraging accountability, and helping to root societies in their cultural and historical identities. Few would demur from these assertions. However, the ‘archival turn’ in the humanities, and more recent challenges from the decolonisation movement, have demonstrated that libraries and archives are themselves problematic and partial, and information professionals need to work much harder to represent more effectively the diversity of the communities that they purport to represent. An acknowledgement by Ovenden of this representational challenge, in parallel with the challenge of preservation, would arguably have strengthened the compelling case that he makes for knowledge institutions.
Nonetheless, few have advocated so effectively as Ovenden for the centrality of libraries and archives. Burning the Books is both a scholarly survey of the history of knowledge under attack and a manifesto for preservation. Meticulously researched and eloquently written, it deserves a wide readership beyond the realms of information science and academic history.
As noted above, one chapter of Burning the Books is devoted to the Mattityahu Strashun Library in Vilna, which is the subject of a recent full-length investigation by the book collector and attorney, Dan Rabinowitz. The Lost Library: The Legacy of Vilna’s Strashun Library in the Aftermath of the Holocaust examines the formation and cultural context of the Strashun Library, its near destruction during the Second World War, and a controversial afterlife that echoes the geopolitics of the post-war period. Rabinowitz asserts that the Strashun Library, ‘the first modern Jewish public library’, ‘ranked among the greatest intellectual institutions in all of Jewish Europe’ (p. 1). If few today have heard of this remarkable foundation, Rabinowitz argues that this is because the surviving books have been deliberately conflated with other collections and their identities suppressed since the Second World War.
The first three chapters of The Lost Library discuss the formation of the Strashun Library and the vibrant cultural and intellectual life of 19th-century Vilna, which Rabinowitz describes as ‘an epicenter of Jewish intellectualism, a veritable Jerusalem’. At the age of fourteen, Mattityahu Strashun (1817–85), son of the Talmudic scholar Samuel Strashun, married the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Vilna and thus was able to devote the rest of his life to polymathic studies and book collecting. He amassed over 7,000 books and manuscripts across a wide range of topics: Bible commentaries, Mishnah, Talmud, midrash, responsa, Kabbalah, Jewish philosophy, liturgy, as well as Jewish history and other secular works. Strashun left his collection to the Vilna Jewish community at large and eventually, after several years of legal and financial difficulties, the purpose-built Strashun Library officially opened in 1902, vested in the entire community. Within a year, it was reported that 300 visitors a day were using the library. It ultimately became the largest public Judaic library in Eastern Europe, housing over 50,000 volumes in 1940 on the eve of its destruction.
Chapter 4 describes how, following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Strashun Library and all other Jewish libraries in Eastern Europe were systematically destroyed by the Nazis. In a cruel twist, Jewish intellectuals were conscripted to identify the most valuable books for transfer to the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question (IEJ) in Frankfurt. By September 1944, when the Red Army reentered Vilna, at least 23,000 books had been shipped to Frankfurt. However, at great personal risk, the so-called ‘Paper Brigade’ smuggled several thousand more volumes into the Ghetto where many remained concealed after it was ‘liquidated’ in September 1943.
The remaining chapters of The Lost Library reconstruct the post-war fate of almost half the books from the Strashun Library, which were transferred from the US military government’s clearing house for looted Jewish property at Offenbach near Frankfurt to YIVO in New York. YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut) was founded in Vilna in 1925 to encourage the study and preservation of Yiddish culture, and it built up a library that surpassed the Strashun in Yiddish works. YIVO’s library suffered the same fate as the Strashun, but crucially YIVO relocated its headquarters to New York in 1940 and thus the organisation survived after the Jewish community in Vilna and its Yiddish culture had been annihilated. After the war, YIVO’s director, Max Weinreich, convinced the US authorities that it was rightful heir to the Strashun Library’s books, which were duly shipped to New York in 1947:
In his telling, the basis for YIVO’s claim to the Strashun Library is predicated on YIVO’s long-standing relationship with the Strashun Library, a relationship that intensified over time, ending in a planned full consolidation of the two into a “superlibrary” that would be helmed by YIVO. (p. 113)
While Ovenden is largely silent on the post-war fate of the Strashun Library, through meticulous archival research Rabinowitz exposes the fallaciousness of YIVO’s claims: ‘the extant record shows that YIVO had no significant relationship with the Strashun Library’ (p. 115). Rabinowitz acknowledges that in the chaotic circumstances of a defeated Germany, amid growing hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union, returning the surviving Strashun books to Vilna, where the Jewish community had been exterminated, was not a feasible option.
Recognizing that under certain circumstances, otherwise illegal actions are justifiable and permitted, theft for rescuing archival materials that otherwise would be destroyed provides one justification and defense. Under those conditions, theft is converted into salvage or rescue. (p. 141)
However, YIVO’s subsequent treatment of the Strashun books was less pardonable. Rabinowitz shows that they were stamped as YIVO property when they arrived in New York, using copies of pre-war stamps, effectively backdating YIVO’s ownership to 1939; he sardonically calls this ploy ‘a brilliant revision of the material history of each Strashun book’ (p. 129). Indeed, YIVO did not publicly acknowledge that it held Strashun books until the early 1960s. Instead, they were quietly assimilated into the composite ‘Vilna Collection’, thus eliding their specific provenance. Rabinowitz’s conclusion is damning: ‘In the end, YIVO may have saved the Strashun Library books, but YIVO failed to save the Strashun Library.’ (p. 138)
While it is difficult to justify YIVO’s treatment of the Strashun books, it should be noted that it was once common for libraries to elide the discrete identities of their component collections. YIVO was also not unique in selling ‘duplicates’ from the Strashun Collection in 2009: my own institution was guilty of this in the 1980s. However, one of the unhappiest episodes in the afterlife of the Strashun Library was YIVO’s transfer, in 1960, of approximately 500 duplicate volumes to the Hechal Shlomo (Central Rabbinical Library) in Israel, for in the early 2000s all of these books were sold. ‘The self-proclaimed center for all religious Judaism dispersed “the remnant of the Strashun Library,” and with it one of the last testaments to Jewish Vilna.’ (p. 167) Books from Mattityahu Strashun’s personal library are still being offered for sale by dealers. One of the lessons of The Lost Library is that collections are at risk not merely from catastrophic events such as fires, wars, and cultural genocide, but also from the more insidious forces of institutional neglect and professional malpractice.
The Lost Library is not without fault. The introduction, in which the author explains at length how his interest in the Strashun Library arose, struck this reviewer as somewhat indulgent and could usefully have been abbreviated or relegated to an appendix. Rabinowitz could perhaps have elaborated further on how the Strashun Library was used and on its central role in Jewish culture and learning in Vilna, but no doubt he was constrained by the loss of the library’s archives and oral testimony. There is also a handful of typos.
However, Rabinowitz demonstrates a mastery of his subject, and over 70 pages of endnotes attest to his command of the secondary literature and to extensive archival research in Lithuania, the United States, and Israel (though he notes that he was denied access to some of YIVO’s records). While forensically building a case for its maltreatment, Rabinowitz effectively deploys the Strashun Library as a lens through which to examine wider cultural and geopolitical forces in the 19th and 20th centuries. An essentially tragic story—of a lost culture and of the mistreatment of its material remains by those who claim to be the heirs to that culture—ends on a more sanguine note. An international project is digitising the surviving books and manuscripts of Mattityahu Strashun himself in Lithuania and at YIVO; liberated from the tyranny of geography and virtually reunited, they will become ‘the property of the entire world’ (p. 180).
Image on landing page: Khaykl Lunski, chief librarian of the Strashun Library until its destruction by the Nazis during World War II, Vilna, ca. 1930s. (Courtesy of the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York.)