Richard Ovenden. Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020. 308p. $29.95 (ISBN 978-0-674-24120-6).

Jason Dyck


Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden writes with a sense of urgency. Libraries and archives are under assault today, he argues, and our complacency is leading to alarming levels of reduced resources for our “storehouses of knowledge” (9). Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge is a call for renewed support for memory institutions, specifically increased funding for digital preservation projects. Despite its title, Ovenden’s book is not a history but rather a series of personal reflections on historical examples that cover the ways in which knowledge—in physical and digital formats—has been destroyed in the past. His narrative is largely guided by his intimate knowledge of the Bodleian Libraries’ collections, which he references in most chapters of his study. Ovenden also confesses that he wrote Burning the Books in “anger at recent failures across the globe” (5) to adequately provide librarians and archivists with the resources they need to safeguard social memory for future generations.

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