Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reading Libricide

Libricide: The Regime Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century [I can't believe I forgot to name the author when I first posted this. The author is Rebecca Knuth]

I begin my book review by giving away my conclusion, Libricide is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s clearly written, it’s smart, it tells stories, and it challenges the reader (at least this reader) to look at things in new ways.

I admit, however, when I initially saw that this book is written by an LIS faculty (at the University of Hawaii) I was skeptical of the author’s ability to rigorously understand, analyze, and communicate these complex situations she was writing about. Nothing in my library training taught me how to analyze the cause and expressions of genocide and ethnic cleansing, so I had some doubts over the author’s ability to do so.  I was wrong. (I was probably projecting my own ignorance of the book’s topic.)

The book begins with three chapters of a more theoretical nature discussing the function of libraries, ethnocide, and her argument to place libricide within the framework of ethnocide. The next five chapters provide well documented case studies of twentieth century examples of systematic library destruction including Nazi Germany, Greater Serbia, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, China’s cultural revolution, and China and Tibet. (Despite the subject matter, while it is not a “light” book, it is very engaging.)

“My project began with these two questions. What really distinguishes those who mourn the destruction of books and libraries from those who willingly, even joyfully, throw books into the fire? And how can these ideals of human progress be reconciled with the mass violence and destruction of culture that characterized the twentieth century.” (p. viii)

This is a bit of a glib aside, but her line about those who “joyfully thrown books into the fire” reminded me that one of my tasks at a public library I used to work at was to discard the discards. Books that had been deaccessioned by library staff and were not deemed salable for the Friends sale were unceremoniously (and often quite gleefully) tossed in the dumpster. The dumpster was behind the library but right next to one of the town’s larger streets. I was surprised that I never heard of people complaining when the saw me toss cartloads of books into the dumpster. Now, I know how some people feel about “books” like they are some kind of sacred object never to be violated. Well, they can be, but they can also be unnecessary dust-collecting wastes of space. </aside>

The primary case Knuth attempts to make – and succeeds – is that libricide belongs within the category of ethnocide – or more precisely “libricide is an identifiable secondary pattern or sub-phenomena occurring within the framework of genocide and ethnocide” (p. viii)

The following set of quotes lay out Knuth’s rationale for why libraries and the texts they hold within them matter, and then, why their destruction matters.

“Texts, especially when part of a diverse collection, are vital in sustaining a group’s uniqueness and protecting the group from the homogeneity promoted by extremists.” (p.9)

“The turn toward memory is subliminally energized by the desire to anchor ourselves in a world characterized by an increasing instability of time and the fracturing of lived space.” (p. 18)

“Something else must be at stake that produces the desire for the past in the first place and that makes us respond so favorably to the memory markets. That something, I would suggest, is a slow but palpable transformation of temporality in our lives, brought on by the complex intersections of technological change, mass media, and new patters of consumption, work and global mobility.” (p. 21)

“Regimes that commit genocide also destroy the material expressions of their victims’ culture, books and libraries.” (p. 6)

“Because books and libraries preserve memory, provide witness, store evidence of the validity of a multitude of perspectives, facilitate intellectual freedom, and support group identity, they are carefully controlled, sanitized, and even extensively purged.” (p. 81)

 “A hindrance to the politicization of scholarship, the physicality of the written records displays a stubborn quality of witness and anchors legitimate methods of historical research.” (p. 31)

She writes that the “physicality of the written displays a stubborn quality of witness” but this physicality can also be a weakness. When an archive of unique physical texts is destroyed, they are all destroyed. Digital media, however, can more easily allow for a more distributed network of ownership and preservation – ala LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.) Destroying one library means less if same material is duplicated all over the place. With singular possession there is a greater vulnerability and risk of real loss. I think the idea of distributed ownership is one of the real preservation strengths we can learn from the digital community. I still hear people, even people who work primarily in the digital world, speak of a desire for central repositories when speaking of either print or digital collections, but it seems to me that a central repository model is both managerially unnecessary, and too high a preservation risk. Distributed and redundant networks seem to me to be the best model for real preservation.

 “Libraries support official beliefs and ideologies, while at the same time bringing about social change by nurturing and transmitting new understanding.” (p. 35)

“Because libraries express the humanist and democratic values that have come to characterize modern society and internationalism, violence directed at them is also an attack on these ideals, serving instead a worldview in which the individual being exists solely to serve the collective vision of the state.” (p. 49)
To me, this statement of violence directed at libraries is an attack on the ideals of humanism bring up hints of “They attacked us because they hate our freedoms.” Cf G. Bush. To generally say that an attack on a library means “X” seems a too broadly stated.

As I said at the beginning of this post I’m a cautious reader when reading a library science professor explaining the rise of Nazism. I can’t very well argue that she’s wrong, as I don’t know much about the rise of Nazism, but I’m only willing to grant her limited authority on the topic – especially when she uses phrases like “cultural predisposition towards romanticism.” (p. 76)

 “The violence and public nature of destruction often observed the fact that the ruin was a practical means of destroying information that contradicted the myths of the regime or substantiated the claims of other ethnic or political groups to resource or territory.” (p. 236)

Anyone who has seen video of the Texas Board of Education reviewing and editing potential school textbooks has seen examples of destroying or deleting information that contradicts the myths of the regime.

In this book the author wrote very much about political and ideological forces behind the destruction of libraries and books. One of my challenges or questions in response to this book is about other forces that might motivate destruction. I’m wondering if and how commercial forces might play into this discussion. By and large, corporations don’t go in and destroy libraries, but they do exercise a great deal of control over what texts get produced and increasingly how libraries interact with these texts through licensing agreements. The book discusses very large scale overt destructions. How might this relate to much smaller and more subtle efforts of censorship and the like?

 “It is unclear whether humanists and internationalists alone perceive the destruction of books and libraries to be in violation of the social contract or whether there is a level of consensus across value systems. In other words, is the preservation of culture a universal objective or is it specific to Western sensibilities.” (p. 249)

Knuth goes through the entire book with this idea that destroying books and libraries is wrong, but in the end, ponders whether the idea that this is wrong is solely a Western idea. This then is the seemingly never-ending challenge of living in a pluralistic world with conflicting worldviews.


  1. Interesting sounding book... it's going on my "to read" list.

    I was intrigued by two things in your post.

    1. That you explain "her argument to place libricide within the framework of ethnocide", I was wondering how she would explain the purposeful policies of closing of libraries (especially in poor/working class areas), which I would see as a class war... rather than ethnic war. And I would see such policies as acts of violence.
    2. The idea of corporate control of content. Maybe the biggest control would be in terms of limiting access by closing libraries.

    I wish I could express the idea as poetically as one of my fav bands... but I can't, so I'll let them say it:

    "I walk tha corner to tha rubble that used to be a library // line up to the mind cemetery now //
    What we don't know keeps tha contracts alive an movin'// They don't gotta burn tha books they just remove 'em" (RAtM - Bulls on Parade)

  2. Dan, I think you'd like the book, but no, the author doesn't approach anything like economic/class violence.