Review: Burning the Books

Cover design for Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden, "A History of Knowledge Under Attack."

We now find ourselves well into autumn here in the UK; the weather is starting to turn and colder, darker nights beckon – the perfect time to be curled up in front of the fire, reading a good book. With this in mind, today’s post makes a slight departure from my usual “research methods” postings, but is highly relevant to the worlds of genealogy and history.

In fact, the book I’m sharing with you today cuts right to the heart of how and why we genealogists do our research. I think you’ll love it.

Archive Survival, Archive Loss

There is a visceral thrill to working with records from centuries past. Deep in archival documents, I often find myself thinking: What journey has this volume been on before it reached me? If you’ve pondered these questions too, then you’ll be captivated by the survival stories of our collective histories which are illuminated in today’s title.

So without further ado, let me introduce Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden, newly on sale in the UK and scheduled for a November release in North America. As “Bodley’s Librarian” – the most senior role at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library – for the past 17 years, Ovenden is perfectly placed to appreciate and chronicle the challenges facing libraries and archives the world over. If you’d like to know what I thought of the book, or why it should interest you as a genealogist, then read on…

Vast array of books within a historic public library, conveying an impression of the wealth of knowledge stored there.
Rijksmuseum Library. Photo by Nuno Cardoso via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Review

The curation, propagation and preservation of human knowledge over millennia has rarely been an easy journey. If knowledge is power, then there will always be those who seek to destroy records in order to cripple the intellectual, political and cultural development of their opponents. Ovenden’s book tackles this subject head-on, presenting stories of library and archive destruction through the ages, with times and places ranging from ancient Assyria through to twentieth-century Sarajevo.

Burning the Books offers a formidable scope, tackled with considerable flair. The scene opens with the renowned libraries of the ancient world. We witness the razing of the vast library of Ashurbanipal in the Assyrian Empire, and the fall of the famous library of Alexandria, papyrus aflame – with a caveat to the mythologies surrounding how the latter met its end. Throughout, we’re forced to confront the reliability of popular histories: Burning the Books doesn’t just inform, it encourages a critical engagement with the past.

Times and Places

Travelling through the repositories of Classical times, Persia, China, the Arab world, and into medieval England, we see how disparate cultures in very different eras are united by the common strand of the battle for control of knowledge. The narrative takes us to Oxford’s Bodleian Library as it was during the Reformation, and through the long-destroyed abbey of Glastonbury, its precious resources later annihilated or dispersed across the land.

Later chapters address the dark years of Nazi-occupied Europe and its wholesale assault upon Jewish history and culture, as well as its people. Hope springs from surprising places though, and we hear not just of savage book burnings, but of the brave individuals of the “Paper Brigade” in Lithuania who took immense risks to preserve and hide documents from the Nazis, all whilst sorting through Jewish records and volumes doomed for destruction.

The Bigger Picture: Themes

Provenance and curation are strong themes; the reader is encouraged to consider the survivorship bias which colours the historical narrative, due to the intentional or accidental selection of records which haven’t survived to present day. In extreme cases, destruction leaves an impossible void: for instance, more than half of Bosnia’s provincial archives – 81km of records in all – were destroyed during the conflict of the 1990s, devastating the cultural and social chronicals of the region’s Muslim communities.

For me – and this is perhaps due to my bias as a family historian used to looking at small-scale, individual histories – I connected most with the chapters on the curation of personal correspondence and intimate diaries which provide insights into an author’s inner world. Through the management and sometimes manipulation of the personal papers of Plath, Larkin, Kafka and Byron after their deaths, we see the power of executors to shape the narrative that is left for later generations. Burning the Books encourages you to consider the partiality of the historical record – a vital acknowledgment for any researcher – and even for this reason alone I would make it recommended reading for all genealogists.

Thoughts

I found Burning the Books fascinating and engaging, but also an inspired call to action. Those of us who work first-hand with archival material of any century will feel a sense of kinship on reading Ovenden’s book and a renewed desire to protect our archives from closures, funding cuts and neglect, and also to safeguard our born-digital heritage in an increasingly online world.

My one gripe is that the Windrush scandal is only given a couple of paragraphs’ discussion; I was surprised that it wasn’t addressed in more depth beyond the introduction. Burning the Books generally avoids overt political statements, which may explain the fleeting coverage, but there is a sense of a missed opportunity for a more in-depth examination of how archives can hold government to account in the present day. Nonetheless, this omission doesn’t detract from the incredible array of other narratives and there was undoubtedly a lot of material calling for inclusion.

“We do not always know the value of the knowledge we are losing when it is destroyed or allowed to decay.”

Ovenden (2020) – burning the books, p.227

Burning the Books concludes with rousing support for the pursuit of local and family history, as a means of deepening our communities’ links with their past and origins, and of fostering unity. As Ovenden comments, “a renewal of emphasis on local history might help our communities develop a greater sense of their own place, helping to bind them together, encouraging more understanding of who we are and where we come from.” When our local and family history pursuits sometimes feel undervalued by traditional academia, it is refreshing and heartening to hear such support coming from the heart of one of the oldest seats of scholarship in Europe.

If you truly love books; if you come alive at the magical feeling of working with historical documents; if you believe that we have a moral duty to guard the evidence from the past – with all the power and potential it holds – as an inheritance for those who come after us, then Burning the Books will make an invaluable addition to your shelf.

Bookshelves representing the transformation of research notes into a readable family history.
Bookshelves image by Eltpics, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Genealogists: Why Should You Read This Book?

Several key themes from Burning the Books have real benefit for the genealogy readership. By encouraging you to think about these issues, it will put you in the right frame of mind to tackle your own research.

Think About Provenance

Stop for a moment and think about the different records you use in your research. As genealogists, we don’t restrict ourselves to one source – we have to triangulate the information we find by looking at multiple sources. If we’re to assess how reliable those sources are, we need to be critical about what we’re seeing and understand their provenance – the origins and influences upon them.

Identify Record Gaps

An appreciation for the destruction and control of knowledge will help you understand the context of the sources you work with, and also keep you attuned to the gaps and omissions we need to look out for. On the days you can’t find the ancestor you’re looking for, consider whether record survival might be a factor in your difficulties. Learn to look for the gaps in the underlying records, not just the gaps in your own work.

Value Your Work

Many of us start out wanting to investigate our family or local history purely for our own interest. Eventually we may question what will happen to our work after we’re gone. Reading a clear message of support for the work you’re doing is a welcome boost; Burning the Books will convince you of the value in writing up your research and passing it on to your family or to a local history society so that it can benefit others. I can only echo Ovenden’s sentiment that “the preservation of knowledge is ultimately…about having faith in the future.”

Publication Details

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack is already on sale in the UK, and due to hit shelves in North America in November.

UK & Ireland: 3rd September 2020 – Hardcover £20, published by John Murray Press

US & Canada: 17th November 2020 – Hardcover US$29.95, published by Belknap Press

3 thoughts on “Review: Burning the Books

  1. Thanks for the article and the pointers. I’d like to add that manipulation is also visible in the form of prevention of collection, such as the UK Statistics Authority’s recommendation not to hold the 2021 census in the traditional way (if at all).

    1. Great point, Penny! Given BtB’s focus on destruction and loss of materials already in existence, I continued that theme for the “advice and tips”. You’re absolutely right though that gaps in the historical record due to lack of recording or even active prevention/avoidance of collection at the time also need to be a key area of consideration for researchers – probably a whole series of articles in itself 🙂

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