Fragile Guardians of Culture

Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of "A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World" (Harper Collins, 2003). He'll discuss it at the Central Library on Jan. 21 at 7 p.m.

The phrase most frequently associated with George Orwell’s “1984” is the chilling caveat that Big Brother Is Watching You.

However, as a writer concerned with the life cycle of books and the institutions that contain them, I think the most consequential sentence in “1984” is this one trumpeted by the ironically named Ministry of Truth: “Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.”

This suggests why tyrants and ideologues bent on a final solution go beyond physically annihilating their enemies to eradicating the artifacts that document their existence.


The surreal goal of “controlling the past” has been with us throughout recorded time, as the Roman Senate understood when it ordered the legions of Scipio Aemelianus to reduce Carthage to rubble in 146 BC -- and to obliterate every standing remnant of its rival’s intellectual vitality while they were at it.

The best way to do that? “Biblioclasm,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the deliberate destruction of books, a cultural offense of the first magnitude.

If there is any constant to biblioclasm, it is that it has no geographical boundaries, no historical limitations, no philosophical or theological restraints.

Was it a Christian mob acting on the orders of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century or Muslim followers of the Caliph Omar in the 7th century who destroyed the great library at Alexandria and all the “pagan” masterpieces from classical antiquity that it contained? Nobody can say for sure, because the likelihood is that both inflicted damage on the collections.

The late 20th century was a banner era for biblioclasm. China’s Red Guard wiped out artifacts and books in the takeover of Tibet in the 1960s. Pol Pot did the same in Cambodia in the 1970s. And on Aug. 25, 1992, the Serbs extended “ethnic cleansing” to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, resulting in 1.5 million books and manuscripts being incinerated in one night.

And the 21st century? Just this month, 150 members of a group called the Sambhaji Brigade ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India, 130 miles from Bombay. The provocation? The institute was used in research for an Oxford University Press book that questioned aspects of the story of the Hindu warrior king, Shivaji. One of the most grievous losses was a clay tablet dating back to the Assyrian period of 600 BC.


There is an upside to all this: Book culture has a way of surviving calamities both natural and deliberate.

Thousands of books made from the bark of trees and bearing the wisdom of Mayan culture went up in smoke on a single day in 1562 in Mexico, the victims of a Spanish friar’s zealous attempt to “cleanse” the natives of “devilish” thoughts. Yet four codices were saved from the flames as curiosities, and from them came the key to unlocking the mystery of the Mayan hieroglyphs in the latter years of the 20th century.

Contemporary horrors are also being remedied.

The national collection of Cambodia is being “reseeded” with help from Cornell University’s rich collection of Southeast Asian materials; the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center is building an Internet archive of works rescued out of the diaspora, and two curators at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library have mobilized a worldwide effort to restore fragments of what was lost in Sarajevo.

Los Angeles has its own example: When an arsonist’s match ignited the downtown Central Library on April 30, 1986, about 375,000 books were destroyed outright and another 700,000 were damaged by smoke and water. About 1,500 volunteers joined weary staff in an inspirational effort to save the imperiled volumes, prompting the California librarian, author and all-around bookman Lawrence Clark Powell to write in The Times that although damage to the revered building was lamentable, “saving most of the books matters more.” It is, in fact, a happy reality that books multiply, one archive begets more archives, one collection can save another. In that spirit, the poet Archibald MacLeish, librarian of Congress during World War II, observed in 1972: “What is more important in a library than anything else -- than everything else -- is that it exists.”