Ontario Public Library Week 2020: The Dangerous Business of Defending Books

October 16, 2020 | M. Elwood

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Ontario Public Library Week is October 18-24, 2020. During this week Ontarians are asked to consider the vital role libraries play in the community. 

Without books, documents and other written records there would be no libraries. When libraries are damaged – accidentally or intentionally – the loss can be devastating. Unfortunately, there is a long history of the intentional destruction of libraries. One of the earliest recorded incidents was in 206 BC. In his rebellion against the Qin Dynasty, Xiang Yu, ordered the burning of the Xianyang Palace and State Archives. 

In the present day conflicts, the destruction of libraries and books often occurs. Conquering forces frequently decimate cultural artifacts like art and books. This strategy serves to demoralize opponents by removing physical evidence of their cultural and history.

Here are some books about the destruction of books and libraries.

Cover image of A universal history of the destruction of books : from ancient Sumer to modern Iraq

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq by Fernando Báez. Regular print only

Báez discusses attacks on libraries from the burning of the Library of Alexandria to modern day occurrences.


Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century by Rebecca Knuth. Regular print only

Rebecca Knuth presents five 20th century case studies where books, documents and libraries have been destroyed in war. 

Rebecca Knuth has also written:

Cover image of Burning books and leveling libraries : extremist violence and cultural destruction

Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction by Rebecca Knuth. Regular print only

In this volume, Knuth considers how extremist groups attempt to silence opposition voices through destruction of books and libraries. 


It's not all bad news however. People, including library workers, have often risked their lives to help preserve irreplaceable documents. You have probably heard of The Monuments Men, who worked to save art from being destroyed or falling into Nazi hands during World War II. But you may not be aware that there were similar operations taking place to preserve documents and manuscripts. 

Cover image of Information hunters : when librarians, soldiers, and spies banded together in World War II Europe

Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss

Academics and librarians, including Reuben Peiss, the author's uncle, were recruited as spies by the O.S.S. during World War II to locate, acquire and preserve texts published in Axis countries. The texts were then analysed for a greater understanding of the cultures in those regions. It provided invaluable information for military and government leaders. 

Cover image of A mortuary of books : the rescue of Jewish culture after the Holocaust

A Mortuary of Books: The Rescue of Jewish Culture after the Holocaust by Elisabeth Gallas

In 1946, the American Military Government for Germany established a depot for the recovery of books and documents looted during World War II. Millions of books and other artifacts were found, recovered and returned to their rightful owners.


More about World War II and how books were threatened and the risks people took to preserve them: 

Cover image of The book thieves : the Nazi looting of Europe's libraries and the race to return a literary inheritance

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell

Rydell takes an in depth look at the systematic looting of libraries and private book collections by the Nazis in World War II and describes his own efforts to reunite one of the stolen books to the family of its original owners. 

Cover image of Stolen words : the Nazi plunder of Jewish books

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman

Although Nazis were known for burning books, Glickman argues that it was rare and that while they appropriated all the Jewish books they could find, most of them were kept to be studied. The Nazis recognized that suppressing books and documents would damage Jewish culture but they also realized that the books could be a valuable source of information.

Cover image of A delayed life : the true story of the Librarian of Auschwitz

A Delayed Life: The True Story of the Librarian of Auschwitz by Dita Kraus

When Dita Polach was 14, she and her parents were sent to Auschwitz. Unlike most prisoners who were separated from their families, the Polachs were kept in the family camp where men and women slept in separate barracks but could see each other during the day. To keep the adults from being distracted from their work the children spent the days in a sort of day care organized by prisoner Fredy Hirsch. Hirsch chose Dita to organize the small secret collection of books they'd acquired and to supervise the borrowing of the books. 

Dita Polach Kraus's experiences inspired this YA novel:

Cover image of The librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe


Epistolphilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė by Julija Šukys

Ona Šimaitė was a librarian at Vilnius University in Lithuania during World War II. She saw how badly Jews in the Vilna Ghetto were treated and decided to help. She pretended to be retrieving library books from students in the ghetto but was actually delivering food, medicine and arms. She also smuggled items out of the ghetto including books and documents that she protected during the war. On two occasions she rescued people, in one case using forged papers claiming a 10-year-old girl was her niece. When this forgery was uncovered later and she was arrested, tortured and sentenced to death. Her friends in the university community paid to have her sentence commuted. Šimaitė spent the rest of the war in prison camps and worked as a librarian in France after the war.


More recently a fascinating operation involved The Timbuktu Manuscripts.

Timbuktu was a centre of education between the 13th and 17th centuries. During this time books were status items and were passed down for generations. In 2012, fundamentalist Ansar Dine rebels occupied the town, destroying monuments and burning libraries so a daring plan to save the books was conceived.

Initially, the manuscripts were hidden in safe houses and then transported to Bamako, Mali's capital city. At first they were moved in cars, then, after the war intensified and roads became treacherous, by boat. The operation took several painstaking months but thousands of books were saved.

These two books discuss the amazing mission: 

Bad ass librarians

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Storied city

The Storied City: The Quest for Timbuktu and the Fantastic Mission to Save the Past by Charlie English


Another amazing recent story is about how a small library was created in war torn Darayya, Syria. A group of volunteers came together to create an underground library with books scavenged from bombed buildings. 

Cover image of Syria's secret library : reading and redemption in a town under siege

Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege by Mike Thomson


No less tragic are accidental destruction of libraries but this one had such a unique cause I wanted to share it. In 2005, a fire in a Devon, England library decimated the building and 90% of its collection. It turned out that the blaze started when a magnifying lens located near a window set some of the library's pamphlets on fire. 


Preventing the destruction of books and printed documents helps to ensure that information about culture and history are passed to future generations. It's important, y'all.