Lucien X. Polastron, Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History, translator: Jon E. Graham (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2007); Fernando Baez, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, translator: Alfred MacAdam (New York: Atlas & Co, 2008).

For those of us who have spent a lifetime around books, it’s sobering to remember that humanity’s history with the written word is not all that old.  Although our earliest ancestor, Homo habilis appeared on the scene about 2.3 million years ago, writing/script did not become part of the human experience until just a few thousand years ago.  What this means is that words in written form have been around for less than one per cent of our species’ time on earth. Ninety-nine per cent of human history is without a single text.

During even that relatively small period of time, preserving what we have written has, to say the least, given us a fair bit of trouble. From the moment clay tablets in Sumer (formerly Mesopotamia and now southern Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) appeared, they also began to disappear. Some of this was caused by natural forces such as floods (water isn’t kind to clay), but much of it was brought about, quite deliberately, by human beings. The same applies, even today. Man and nature do their part in destroying what is fragile, beautiful, and ethereal—and that includes books. Robert Frost might have had in his mind the fate of all things written when he said: “Nothing gold can stay.”

The destruction of books is the subject of two as yet undestroyed books, both published in 2004, and more recently translated into English:  Lucien X. Polastron’s Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History and Fernando Baez’s A Universal History of the Destruction of Books. Baez is the director of the Venezuelan National Library and an expert on the history of libraries. Some of his expertise comes first hand–he documented the destruction of Iraq’s libraries and museums as a member of a U.N. team.  Indeed, his opening pages present the melancholy image he himself saw of a scholar, weeping in front of a ruined library in Iraq. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. In the case of Lucien Polastron, it was another senseless act of wartime destruction that moved him to write: the 1992 devastation of the National Library in Sarajevo. Polastron is a French writer and historian who specializes in the history of books and paper. He had, of course, encountered similar examples of vandalism throughout his work on the history of paper. Now he undertook a systematic, historical investigation of the destruction of libraries.

Both of these scholars tell a similar tale of mindless destruction, beginning with the numerous libraries razed or plundered during the ancient world. These include the legendary library at Alexandria, as well as the famous library in the temple constructed to hold the remains of Ramses II, and the library at Persopolis built by Darius the Great.

Baez is at pains to remind us, in the midst of his catalogue of carnage, that “‘[l]ost’ and ‘destroyed’ often amount to the same thing in the history of books; sometimes works are lost because they have been destroyed and sometimes they are destroyed simply because they have disappeared” (p. 41). The number of lost works is vast and devastating for scholars of the ancient world; approximately140 texts by Aristotle, 110 complete works (only some fragments exist) by Sophocles, and seven complete works by Sappho are amongst the many irretrievably gone.

Unfortunately, as book lovers are well aware, the tale of destruction continues. During the infancy and development of Christianity as well as Islam, in both East and West, even the early Americas, the carnage of books and libraries goes on. As for the twentieth century, the devastation takes place in fascist Europe, as well as China, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq. Books are burned; libraries are plundered.

Of course, in the history of library disasters, not everything is due to man; a part of the catalogue of horrors has to do with natural disasters: floods, fires, earthquakes, and pests. These can be arbitrary and quite beyond human control. What is truly stunning is the wilful destruction brought on by conflict and conquest, the desire for power and domination at the cost of the obliteration of culture, memory, and history such as is tenuously preserved in the libraries of the conquered. Polastron aptly quotes from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad: “Heavens what a pile! Whole ages perish there,/And one bright blaze turns learning into air.”

But what, really, Baez and Polastron ask, is behind this mindless waste? Why do people feel the need to destroy books?  Polastron presents a variety of reasons; they do it because: “as the lawmakers of ancient China and the Nazis in Czechoslovakia decided, an educated people cannot be governed; because the conquered peoples must change their history or their beliefs, like the Aztecs; because only the illiterate can save the world, a common theme of the millenarian preachers of every era; because the nature of a great collection of books is a threat to the new power, like Taoism in the eyes of the Mongols, or Shiism to the Sunnis, or the Reformation to traditional Catholicism”(p. x). Baez also tries to make sense of the motive behind these acts of destruction. For him, they are as much symbolic as anything else: “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory, that is, as one of the axes of identity of a person or community” (p. 12).

For today’s librarian and/or book lover, these two illuminating, albeit depressing treatises on the destruction, over millennia, of some of mankind’s noblest productions really hit home. It’s not as though the depressing stuff is over when you put the two books down, and you can say, “Oh, dear. How awful to have lived in those remote, barbaric times or in those war-torn places. Thank goodness we’re in 21st century Canada, where books and libraries are honoured and diligently preserved.” Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Our two authors did, in fact, touch briefly on the less exciting topics of library destruction by neglect, by budget cuts, and by poor stewardship–would that they had devoted more pages to such matters. Those of us who work in libraries in Canada today could fill volumes with accounts of the thousand small cuts caused by unwise administrative decisions that are fatally wounding our collections. Though less glamorous as a topic for a book on the destruction of libraries, the net effect of these cuts and decisions won’t be much different from dumping our library collections in a pile in the courtyard, pouring gas over them and lighting a match.

This may sound alarmist, but it is an alarming fact for many librarians that print materials are being removed from libraries at ever-increasing rates. It is particularly true for print journals. Their availability electronically means that far fewer library patrons now show up in the stacks to use the print equivalents. This may sound harmless, but library administrators are continually eyeing up the space and thinking about ways of getting rid of all those “excess” books. If patrons no longer go to the shelves to search for dowdy old print material, why not use the space for study halls with coffee shops and lots of comfy lounging chairs à la Starbuck’s?

I must admit, though, that even the most ardent admirers of electronic products are cautious about tossing out all the print at once. After all, these collections were purchased with public money. Sending several floors of hardbound journals to the landfill will most likely result in a hue and cry somewhere during the process. So libraries tend to get rid of their print journal collections slowly—either by sending them off to storage places (which might as well be called “tombs,” since they generally stay there) or by packaging them in smaller lots for the recycler. In the meantime, access to electronic journals is generally acquired from publishing conglomerates by yearly subscriptions. They are not purchased and owned outright. This practice means the effective end of libraries as permanent repositories of knowledge. Rather, they become renters of information. If, some day, you can’t afford the rent, the information disappears much as though someone had set fire to it.

Even the revered British Library is guilty. Polastron briefly cites the example of the writer Nicholson Baker, who discovered in 2001 that the BL had disposed of “sixty thousand volumes, ‘thick as bricks’” of foreign newspapers from the early part of the twentieth century.  These were mainly bound weeklies and dailies, “including a stunning collection of newspapers from pre-Revolutionary Russia, 1920s Germany, and Occupied France,” as well as “magnificent American sheets from 1900 with four-colour Sunday supplements such as the World and Capone-era issues of the Chicago Tribune.” Startlingly, even the U.S. archives had got rid of these folios after recording them on black-and-white film. “Baker acquired them himself to set up a foundation near his home in New Hampshire—the American Newspaper Repository. Seventy years of the Chicago Tribune cost $63,000 whereas the complete series on microfilm sells for $177,000.  Baker writes: ‘We’re at a bizarre moment in history when you can have the real thing for considerably less than it would cost to buy a set of crummy black-and-white snapshots of it, which you can’t read without the help of a machine.” (p. 276-277)

This contemporary destruction of library collections is not limited solely to newspapers and journals but is also happening to books (i.e., texts or monographs). Once upon a time, librarians who knew their collections and their patrons well were able to pour over publishers’ catalogues and choose books they felt would enhance existing collections and support the research needs of their library. Draconian staff cuts in many academic libraries over the past decade, however, mean there aren’t sufficient librarians in many libraries to perform this time-consuming, vital task.

Instead, computer-generated book purchasing “profiles” are sent to middle-man outfits—private companies who now act as the book buyers for libraries. These companies generally know very little about your collection or your patrons. They, in their turn, produce a computer program which searches information provided by publishers and (based on your “profile,” of course) selects the books that fill your library’s shelves.

To be more specific: although the computer program may allow the librarian to narrow down the selection somewhat, it is still a blunt instrument. If my “profile” suggests I want books on Law from Oxford, Hart, Cambridge and Clarendon publishers, for example, I’m sent all the Law books from these publishers, even those I would have never chosen had I been selecting from a catalogue.

What makes the problem even worse is that most libraries can’t return the unwanted books; they arrive “shelf-ready” (i.e. with a book plate, spine label and other markings specific to the individual library stuck on by workers who are probably paid minimum wages). That’s because the library staff who once used to order and process books have retired and not been replaced. Can you imagine the pressures directed at any libraries fortunate enough to have retained the ability to choose and process their own books to “get with the program”? The computer seems to do it all much more cheaply than human beings can, even if the ultimate result is in fact a waste of money on books the actual patrons will not find to be relevant to their needs.

But there’s also a much more ominous problem: the proliferation of electronic books. On the surface, they seem very convenient. They don’t need any physical processing (spine labels, security tape, book plates) at all. Neither, however, do they resolve the selection problems. They are often offered by publishers in great electronic packages and the library doesn’t get to choose what’s in the package. Imagine being asked to buy a grab bag of books published by a particular publisher regardless of title. In short, even here, libraries are once again being asked to forego the vital task of selection and ownership of materials in favour of some false notion of convenience or economy.

All of us, especially in academic libraries today, surely ought to be gravely concerned about what might be an even greater danger from electronic books. There’s an ongoing debate on their possible detrimental psychological effects, and on how they affect the actual process of learning and the purpose of education as our culture has traditionally conceived of it. In a Fall 2008 essay in The New Atlantis, senior editor Christine Rosen sums up the issue: “For centuries, print literacy has been one of the building blocks in the formation of the modern sense of self. By contrast, screen reading, a historically recent arrival, encourages a different kind of self-conception, one based on interaction and dependent on the feedback of others. It rewards participation and performance, not contemplation. It is, to borrow a characterization from sociologist David Riesman, a kind of literacy more comfortable for the ‘outer-directed’ personality who takes his cues from others and constantly reinvents himself than for the ‘inner-directed’ personality whose values are less flexible but also less susceptible to outside pressures. How does a culture of digitally literate, outer-directed personalities ‘read’?” Screen reading is fundamentally different from print reading, Rosen argues. “We are coming to see the book as a hindrance, a retrograde technology that doesn’t suit the times. Its inanimacy now renders it less compelling than the eye-catching screen. It doesn’t actively do anything for us. In our eagerness to upgrade or replace the book, we try to make reading easier, more convenient, more entertaining — forgetting that reading is also supposed to encourage us to challenge ourselves and to search for deeper meaning.”

You can see why, for many in the library business, the two books under review are so portentous. For us, the match has already been struck, the flames are spreading, and too many of our administrators are gloating over the thought that the whole dirty business of print is at an end. Whereas a looting, a fire, a cyclone destroying our libraries would at least give us something to grieve—one great tragedy—we’re confronted instead with this daily, mundane attrition, what Evelyn Waugh would describe as “blow[s] upon a bruise.”

Librarians who are actual lovers of books (and there are many of us) know that those who destroy libraries don’t have to come with torches in the dead of night. Symbolically, the act takes place every time some administrator makes a decision based solely on the bottom line and without thought as to what the academic enterprise means. A library isn’t just a jumble of books; the best libraries are places where scholars and knowledgeable people have taken the time and the care over years to build collections that are consistent, coherent, and functional, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Like any complex endeavor, like anything fragile, beautiful, and ethereal, a library’s not hard to ruin. “Here, from pure wickedness to unconscious actions organized in passing by the lowest of the low,” says Polastron, “we see, century after century, the varied face assumed by barbarism. Toward the end, however, we risk finding that this face is a little too close to our own—too close and too similar” (p. xii).

Nancy McCormack is Head of the Lederman Law Library and assistant professor of law at Queen’s University