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Burning the books : a history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge

Professor Richard Ovenden is a scholar, and at Oxford University he is the British Librarian in charge of the Bodleian Libraries. His appreciation of libraries and archives and those who create, maintain and protect them is evident in this book. When certain individuals or groups of people vociferously disagree with what someone else has written and do not want anyone else to be able to read those ideas, that is when purposeful destruction of books and libraries takes place. For dictatorial individuals censorship is insufficient, only attempts at complete obliteration will do. The book opens with a 20th century event in Berlin, May 10, 1933 when Nazis conducted a purging of materials. University students in over 30 university towns burned over 250,000 books. Censorhip is usually focused on four key subject areas: politics, religion, social concepts and sex.  Beyond censorshop, destruction of the written word can take other forms:  writers who do not want their incomplete manuscripts read or published after they are dead; destruction of personal correspondence; benign neglect of libraries that are not physically maintained; complacency and lack of funding; variations on what is read and seen, such as the "alternative facts" in 2017 suggested by Kellyanne Conway, US Counselor to President Trump. There can be too much "information" which is what we are currently experiencing, or the "digital deluge." Professor Ovenden points out the invaluable services that publc libraries provide, which is the free dissemination of information provided to all people within a community and/or a country. He states, "Storehouses of knowledge have been at the heart of the development of societies from their inception. Firstly, libraries and archives collect, organize and preserve knowledge." 

We are presented with an overview of major historical events in the history of libraries and freedom of expression. The book is not intended as a complete history, but gives readers a compelling overview and commentary of how knowledge of the world has survived and been passed down. There is a lengthy 27-page bibliography that will give curious readers more resources. The existence of libraries goes back thousands of years, and the written word existed in conjunction with the oral tradition. This history begins in an ulikely place and time, when Xenophon (c. 430 – 354 BC) the Greek general and historian, in his Anabasis or The Persian Expedition, writes about seeing the remains of the cities of Nimur and Ninveveh, where he saw large mounds. Deep in those mounds was preserved the incredible library of Ashurbanipal. "It would take a further twenty-two centuries before the great library of Ashurbanipal would be discovered and the full history of the Assyrian empire." When archaeologists began analyzing the tablets they discovered early destruction of libraries caused by factors other than censorship: to a desire to enlarge an existing library in unethical ways, to rivalry, and to the ultimate destructive force--war between nations. 

In his conclusion, Professor Ovenden reminds power holders about the five functions of libraries: to support the education of a society as a whole; to provide a diversity of knowledge and ideas; to support the principles of an open society; to provide " ... a fixed reference point, allowing truth and falsehood to be judged through transparency, verification, citation and reproducibility; to " ... help root societies in their cultural and historical identities through preserving the written record of those societies and cultures."  As we celebrate freedom of expression during Banned Books Week, all of us could not have better reminders about what we might take for granted--the library.

Banned Books Week will give readers more books that relate to freedom of expression.