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Words under fire: When libraries become targets

Raghad Hammadi, who is a member of a group of students campaigning to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, is seen in Mosul. Photo: Reuters/Khalid Al-Mousily

Almost three decades ago, some three million books and countless artefacts went up in flames when Sarajevo’s National and University Library – inside the Vijecnica (city hall) – was burned to the ground. The destruction of the Vijecnica at the beginning of the war was a symbol for one of the aggressor’s main objectives – silencing the soul of the city and crushing the cultural identity of an entire society.”

So said Dunja Mijatović, the current Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, who was born in Sarajevo when it was part of Yugoslavia.

Just weeks before the anniversary of the burning of the library on 25 August 1992, Mijatović spoke to Index about its symbolism and what its destruction was meant to achieve.

She quoted Heinrich Heine’s play, Almansor: “Where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people.”
Libraries and archives have been targets for centuries, and the reason is always the same: it’s about taking away knowledge and stifling free thinking.

Libraries are, and have always been, symbols of freedom – the freedom to think and learn and find documents and books to debate and discuss.

Throughout history, when authoritarians take power and seek to control thought and behaviour, they either lock up libraries or destroy the manuscripts and books inside them.

The Serbian forces who burned the Sarajevo library were seeking to obliterate evidence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s existence as a successful multicultural and multi-ethnic state. The documents they burned told a different history from the one that the army leaders wanted to portray.

Omar Mohammed, who reported as Mosul Eye on the Isis occupation of his city in Iraq, risked his life to blog anonymously about the occupiers’ wish to destroy books as well as to execute people as they sought to repress the population.

Mohammed told Index that it was not just the university library that was destroyed in Mosul, but it was the one that was reported on the most.

Many other libraries, even private collections, were wiped out. “The only possible reason is because knowledge is power,” he said. “Once you prevent people from accessing knowledge then you will have full control over them.”

Like many other scholars who have delved into the history of libraries, Mohammed understands that it is not about the buildings themselves.

“They don’t want people to have this access because they know if people write the history, it will be completely different from the one they wanted it to be,” he said.

Targeting libraries sends out a powerful message to scholars, historians and scientists, he added.

“When they see that such people are able to totally target the libraries, that they are literally able to destroy everything, it’s a manifestation of brutality.”

Today, Richard Ovenden, the most senior librarian at the Bodleian libraries at the University of Oxford, is worried about libraries in Turkey being closed under pressure from the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to some sources, at least 188 libraries were closed there between 2002 and 2020.

Ovenden’s book, Burning the Books, looks at the history of the intentional destruction of knowledge. He was recently contacted by a Turkish student, who said: “I’ve just read your book and I want you to know how bad it is in Turkey, because libraries are being destroyed. And all the things that you write about are true in Turkey today.”

Ovenden said: “There is an absolutely authoritarian control over knowledge. Attacks on knowledge are being exercised by the authoritarian leader of Turkey right now. It is the ability for the population to generate their own ideas and to come up with their own thoughts that some governments, some authoritarian powers, some dictators and rulers do not like.”

When dictatorships seek to establish that certain minorities don’t exist, or haven’t lived somewhere, getting rid of the documentary evidence is very convenient.

Archives that establish the existence of Uighurs in China and Muslims in parts of India also look like targets.
Ovenden feels that what is fantastically important about libraries is that they “preserve the past thoughts and ideas of human beings so they’re parts of that evidence base”.

He added: “They’re also disseminating institutions [where] you can borrow the books, you can come and take those ideas away and write other books about them, or pamphlets, or newspaper articles, or whatever it is.”
Governments around the world are failing to protect libraries as a resource, sometimes by withdrawing or drastically reducing funding.

In the UK, almost 800 libraries closed between 2010 and 2019, and a major campaign kicked off in Australia this year to save the national archives.

Michelle Arrow, professor of history at Macquarie University in Sydney, argued in April that if funding cuts were not reversed, irreplaceable audio-visual collections would fall apart. After a public campaign, the national government has delivered some extra funding, but this has not solved all the archives’ problems.

She told Index that with a reduction in staff of almost 25% since 2013, more staff would be needed to deal with the large backlog of requests to view archived material.

She said the archives contained “unique records, and they touch almost every Australian: it is a democratic archive, a collection of ordinary people’s records, rather than famous or renowned Australians”.

While some countries are seeing numerous library closures due to financial or other threats, there are new defenders coming to light. In the coastal city of Santa Cruz in California, there’s a massive investment in upgrades to current libraries, and new ones are opening over the next two years.

Santa Cruz mayor Donna Meyers told Index: “In California, we just tend to believe in public institutions. We believe that public education, public libraries, all of that, lead to a better community, lead to a more informed society.”

Santa Cruz residents passed a special tax – by 78% of the vote – to pay for investment in the libraries which, Meyers says, is a sign of how committed the community is to libraries being around for future generations.
Back in Sarajevo, Mijatović can see the new library that rose from the ashes of the Vijecnica from her terrace.
She said: “One hopes that the soul and the people of Sarajevo will recover and that new generations will hopefully enjoy this magnificent symbol of Sarajevo and, more importantly, live in peace.”

Library destruction in recent history

1914: German troops destroy the library of the Catholic University of Louvain

1939: The Great Talmudic Library in Lublin is destroyed by the Nazis

1966-76: Chairman Mao destroys libraries across China as part of the Cultural Revolution

1976-79: The Khmer Rouge deliberately destroy libraries across Cambodia, including the Phnom Penh national library

2013: Islamic troops set fire to the library in Timbuktu, Mali

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