I’m reading about and exploring libraries for a talk I’m doing in a few weeks. I just finished Library: An Unquiet History and its author, Matthew Battles, describes the perilous history of libraries. Most cultures have had libraries and, too often, the cultures and peoples that conquered them made an effort to destroy those libraries, often by looting and burning. This destruction is so common place, in fact, that there’s a word for it: biblioclasm.
Wiktionary suggests that a biblioclasm focuses more specifically on the Bible or other holy books so perhaps libricide, another word I did not know, might be more general. Killing the library. It’s so common that Wikipedia has a page devoted to it with the most recent event happening in 2015. There are some natural disasters, but most of the libricides are deliberately caused by man. They have not all been successful in completely destroying the libraries although it seems as though, more often than not, we lose everything.
In the natural disaster column, the Villa of the Papyri tells the story of the library at Herculaneum that was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried the town. Contemporary technology allows scientists and archivists to read the burned papyri.
The Library of the University at Louvain, located in a town east of Brussels, was destroyed by the Germans twice: once in WW I and then, after being rebuilt between the wars, during WW II. Of this biblioclasm, only one manuscript was saved during the first destruction, as it was checked out to a professor who took it with him when he fled. He buried it in a garden in Ghent, and no one has ever dug it up.
Now, the contemporary library in Louvain (or Leuven as the Dutch prefer) is working to save another library collection, this one from Timbuktu. It’s been gotten out of the country but is now deterioriating due to humidity and poor conditions.
The library hosted a conference last fall asking, “What do we lost when we lose a library?”Contemporary libraries are busy becoming community spaces that support all sorts of learning that go beyond checking out books and DVDs and that’s great. They bring computers, internet access, makerspaces and more to communities that may otherwise not have them.
But, ultimately, they are also the cataloguers and custodians of the culture, and we must not lose site of the work they do in that area and that, even in our “modern” world, these kinds of repositories are seen as dangerous and worth of destruction.