For as long as long as there have been books, there have been those who have tried to destroy them. And in his critically acclaimed 2020 book Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge Richard Ovenden, director of the Bodleian Libraries of Oxford University, tells the stories of the villains who have sought to destroy knowledge and the hero librarians and archivists who have stood in their way. But today, books and libraries are facing a new threat: a cynical right wing political attack in the U.S. that has taken aim at the LGBTQ community and communities of color, and alarmed publishers and freedom-to-read advocates around the globe. We recently caught up with Ovenden—who in April was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences—to get his take on book banning in America.
The surge in book banning today has been described as unprecedented. But as somebody who studies the history of book banning and destruction of knowledge, is it?
Absolutely, yes, I think it is unprecedented. In the last year or two I’ve seen a distinct change in how access to knowledge or ideas has become weaponized. Books have become a new battleground with librarians in the frontline trenches. And I struggle to draw a historical comparison because this is quite a unique set of circumstances. Books and libraries have become a focal point in a culture war that falls within the framework of a broader political battle. But there is a reason the focus is on libraries, I think—I have been telling my colleagues in the profession that it’s evidence that we’re doing a good job. They wouldn’t be attacking us if we weren’t connecting people with knowledge and with ideas.
It’s a sobering observation because in your book you write about so many moments in history where books and libraries and knowledge were targeted by authoritarian, politically motivated forces, often with violence.
Absolutely. You know, I guess you can go back to the 16th century, particularly in Britain in the second phase of the protestant reformation where there was this wholesale destruction of knowledge. In Bosnia in the 1990s, the National Library of Sarajevo was deliberately targeted by Serbian militia, who shelled the library, and when librarians tried to rescue the collections from the burning building they were targeted by snipers. A librarian was actually murdered that day. Fortunately, so far, nobody has lost their lives in this current moment, but I’ve spoken to a number of librarians who’ve been threatened with their lives, or who have received incredibly vitriolic hate mail and who are terrified of what might happen to them. And what’s sort of unprecedented is the structured attempts to take over library boards, school boards, and this legislative, legalistic approach to closing libraries or stopping services over allegedly unsuitable literature.
What do you make of the arguments coming from many of these would-be book banners that they are not banning books at all, and that this is simply about obscene materials and parental involvement and age appropriateness?
Well, nobody’s forcing anyone to read these books in these libraries. It’s not compulsory. Parents still have the right and ability to decide what their children read and to choose or help guide their children to the literature they feel is appropriate for them. But parents don’t have the right to decide that for others. I think we’ve got to see these attacks on books and libraries as a sign of the valuable work that libraries contribute to society. This is a moment in history where libraries are taking centerstage because libraries are essential to an open democratic society. Libraries are the very infrastructure of democracy.
Having studied book burning and attacks on libraries and knowledge, can you point to any common themes or takeaways from the past that, as unprecedented as this moment may be, might help guide us through this challenging time?
I think we can take a lot of inspiration from the past. There have been amazing stories of librarians who have risked their lives, and sometimes lost their lives, to preserve the knowledge of their communities through libraries. In my book, there’s a chapter called the paper brigade about archivists during the Holocaust. Now I’m not saying that librarians today are in a position where they must lay down their lives, but I think we can take inspiration from those who remind us of the library’s core mission, that even in this digitally saturated world, libraries play an absolutely vital role in society.