Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden , John Murray. 3.5/5 stars Richard Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian, the 25th of that title to be in charge of Oxford University’s library, founded in 1598, with its 13 million bound volumes and mile upon mile of manuscripts spread over 28 sites. In Burning the Books, Ovenden tells the stories of many libraries and archives, of those who made or destroyed them, and the consequences of their dispersal, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day Iraq, Turkey and Britain. Unsurprisingly, he’s in favour of archives and archivists, and sees them as having an important role for the indefinite future. He points out that a pile of books is no more a library than a crowd of soldiers is an army. “It is the library staff who turn the pile of books into ‘an organised body of knowledge’. They are guardians of the truth, collecting knowledge in both analogue and digital form.” His opening examples seem predictable – Hitler as a book burner; Orwell as a Cassandra, forecasting the end of truth. And there’s an inevitability in choosing the Great Library of Alexandria for his first detailed discussion of construction and destruction. Little is known about that library’s physical qualities or even its exact location, except that it was probably founded in around 295BC. Ovenden’s point is that with Alexandria begins the idea of a curated central storehouse of all knowledge, where new knowledge is generated and added. Here real life met someone’s answer to the question of who they would invite to their ideal dinner party. The King of Egypt supped with geometry genius Euclid, engineering innovator Archimedes and polymath Eratosthenes. Competing accounts of the destruction of the library are all likely myths, and Ovenden thinks it likely decayed through lack of resources. The book is in part a manifesto for increased library funding. Hong Kong libraries pull democracy activists’ books for national security review Ovenden’s bibliophilia is more philosophical than simply a love of ancient parchment or gold-tooled leather bindings, or the exquisite craftsmanship of book cabinets, tiled floors or frescoed ceilings. It’s rather the disinterested preservation of knowledge for the benefit of humanity in general and individual humans in particular that he advocates. Individual records in an archive may decide matters such as ownership of property, nationality or right of abode. He mentions a South China Morning Post editorial from 2019, calling for legislation on archives in Hong Kong , where reports suggest that 4,400 metres of records were destroyed in 2018, and perhaps with them memories of the 2014 protests. But, in general, the discussion is largely Eurocentric. We hear of libraries destroyed in Louvain, Vilnius and Sarajevo, and of heroic attempts to save them, but there’s nothing on the Boxer burning of Beijing’s Hanlin Academy in 1900. We learn of collections acquired by conquest and the dissolution of monastic libraries across Europe during the Reformation, but nothing on the Library Cave at Dunhuang, in Gansu province, which gave the British Library the world’s oldest dated printed book. And while the 11th century cataloguing of the English conquests by the Normans and the hideously detailed documentation of the lives of East German citizens by the Stasi get full discussion, there’s nothing on China’s dang’an and hukou systems, which, now with the help of digital technologies, make the Chinese the most archived people on Earth. It is vital that the communities from which these materials have been removed should be allowed to take control of the narrative of history once again Richard Ovenden, librarian But the book’s themes are nonetheless both universal and timeless, and brought right up to date with criticism of the private ownership of modern data. Tech companies, driven purely by commercial considerations, may be unreliable about what they choose to retain and for how long they retain it, unlike a principled and disinterested institution such as … well … The Bodleian. Ovenden takes the probity of librarians so much for granted that he asks, “Can we conceive of a future where the data of individuals is placed in the hands of public institutions, as trusted stewards of public data?” For many, the answer will be a firm “no”. Accounts of vanished libraries often mention that volumes ended up in the Bodleian, but Ovenden skirts the question of return or restitution, although he mentions that there have been demands that books and manuscripts looted by British troops from the Ethiopian fortress of Magdala in 1868 be returned. “It is vital that the communities from which these materials have been removed should be allowed to take control of the narrative of history once again,” he says. Take control, apparently, but not take possession.