Review of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ by Richard Ovenden

Knowledge is power. Since records began, people have attempted to control the organisation and distribution of knowledge to hold power over others. Richard Ovenden, the current Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford, has written an important book which focuses on key events in the history of libraries and archives which demonstrate the ethical and political challenges of collecting and preserving knowledge.

The examples range from the deliberate destruction of great libraries, to book burnings as part of cultural genocide, to the archives of individuals who wanted their own works destroyed, to the problems curating the mass of unstable digital data today. It’s terrible to consider how much information has been lost from the human record, while at the same time it’s heartening that at least some has survived, often at great cost to the people who saved the materials.

If you’re interested in the history of libraries and related topics such as censorship, democracy, ‘alternative facts’, archiving the internet and cultural heritage, this book is a must-read. Although it’s academic enough to be suitable for study, the writing is accessible, if not always elegantly expressed. The coda, ‘Why We Will Always Need Libraries and Archives,’ should be required reading for everyone in government.

First published in 2020.

6 thoughts on “Review of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ by Richard Ovenden”

  1. I was going to recommend The Library Book by Susan Orlean but can see you’ve already read it! πŸ™‚ Fab review, it’s going on my list. I also have ‘On the Burning of Books’ by Kenneth Baker on my bookcase which I still need to read.

    1. Yes, I certainly would want to read that if I hadn’t already πŸ˜‰ I haven’t heard of the Kenneth Baker one though. Thanks for your comment! πŸ™‚

  2. Glad you found this book. Love the cover and the title! Sounds like an interesting and important read. Great review, NS!

    1. Thanks Jee πŸ™‚ It is a great cover isn’t it? I absolutely recommend this book.

Leave a Reply