The destruction and censorship of books has a long history, but libraries continue to fight back and protect knowledge, serving as the infrastructure for democracy.
In a thought-provoking event titled “Book Wars,” Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford, shed light on the deliberate destruction of knowledge throughout history. From the burning of the library of Ashurbanipal in 612 BC to the book burnings under the Nazi regime, attacks on libraries have been a recurring theme. Ovenden also highlighted current efforts in the United States to remove or restrict access to books.
Despite this history of loss, Ovenden finds hope in the human impulse to preserve and pass on knowledge. He shared inspiring stories of individuals who risked their lives to save books, such as the “Paper Brigade” in Nazi-occupied Vilnius and the tragic death of Aida Buturovic during the assault on the National and University Library in Sarajevo.
Ovenden emphasized that libraries and archives are not only institutions of education but also crucial for safeguarding citizens’ rights, providing reference points for facts and truth, preserving identity, and enabling a diversity of views. They serve as the infrastructure for democracy.
In response to attacks on books, libraries have continued to fight back. Public libraries are expanding digital access to combat book bans across the nation. The event sparked a discussion on the connections between book bans and “cancel culture,” the use of censorship as a means of expressing political views, and growing distrust of expertise.
The Conversations on Academic Freedom and Expression (CAFE) series, a collaboration between MIT Libraries and History at MIT, aims to introduce the MIT community to the broader landscape of academic freedom and free expression. It emerged as an opportunity to engage the Institute community following the Report of the MIT Ad Hoc Working Group on Free Expression.
At a time when discussion is crucial, Ovenden called for encouraging dialogue rather than debate. Moving away from the idea of a contest or battle, fostering an environment that embraces diverse ideas is essential. Libraries and archives play a vital role in this endeavor, ensuring the free and open access to information that underpins everything they do.
In conclusion, the event shed light on the importance of preserving knowledge and the ongoing efforts to protect books and promote academic freedom. Despite the challenges faced throughout history, libraries continue to be a beacon of hope, fighting to preserve diverse ideas and safeguard democracy.