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.