I HAVE TAKEN the title of this brief perusal of some of the more recent catastrophes which have caused the destruction of books from a reference first published in 1886, The Enemies of Books, written by William Blades, reprinted in 19021. The traditional enemies of books have long been acknowledged to be fire, flood, looters and insect pests. More recently conservationists have emphasised the detrimental effects of extremes of heat, humidity and sunlight. In this context it is important to distinguish
between the destruction of books and libraries in natural disasters such as floods, fires and the ignorant neglect of books, and the deliberate and planned destruction of books during wars and revolutions. In the latter case books and libraries become the victims of systematic destruction by direct human action through looting, burning and bombing of these highly significant cultural artefacts. The term which Rebecca Knuth ascribed to such deliberate acts of destruction of books is “Libricide”, and her recent publication, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in
the Twentieth Century 2, deals exclusively with examples of such destruction of libraries as occurred during World War II, in China during the Cultural Revolution and in more recent decades the wars in Cambodia, Bosnia and Kuwait.
Perhaps the best known example from the ancient world of the destruction of books was the calamities which befell the great Library of Alexandria over a number of centuries, firstly at the hands of Caesar in 48 BC, then in AD 391 when one of its collections was deliberately destroyed and again, its final demise, in AD 640 at the instigation of the Caliph Omar.
However, by twentieth century standards the destruction of 500,000 to 700,000 “books”, or more correctly papyrus manuscripts, at Alexandria, is overshadowed by the enormous destruction of millions of books through both deliberate destruction and natural disasters that has occurred during the last 100 years.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 was also responsible for the destruction of tens of thousands of books in church libraries as well as private collections. The books stored in the vaults of the Old St. Paul’s Cathedral were also destroyed, though Samuel Pepys’ personal library was saved from the fire and is now conserved safely at Cambridge University in Magdalen College.
Considering more recent natural disasters first, two of the most significant devastations of books during the twentieth century occurred with the flooding of the River Arno, which inundated the city of Florence in Italy in 1966 and the destruction by fire of the Leningrad Academy of Science Library in 1988. It is estimated by Knuth 3 that the former disaster damaged 2 million books and the fire in the Leningrad Library consumed 3.6 million books.
Two other catastrophic fires in more recent decades were responsible for book destruction. In 2004, 25,000 books from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were destroyed in the fire at Weimar’s Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Germany. In this fire 40,000 books were rescued, but suffered severe damage. In the United Kingdom the most recent disastrous destruction of books occurred in 1994 when the Norwich Central Library was completely destroyed by a fire in which 100,000 books were lost together with thousands of historic documents dating back to the Medieval Period in England. These documents included the 800-year-old
Norwich City Charter. A consequence of this fire, deemed to be the worst library fire in the UK in living memory, was water damage to approximately two million historic documents stored in the Library basement, which became drenched as fire fighters attempted to extinguish the blaze.
Australian book and manuscript collections have not been immune from the devastations of natural disasters, one of the best known being the destruction by fire of the famous Garden Palace in Sydney on 22 September 1882. This unique edifice, built for the occasion of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879–1880, contained the office and collections of the Linnean Society of New South Wales (founded in 1874) and the Sydney Technological and Sanitary Museum. At that time it was also housing the documents from the NSW Census Bureau, including the just completed 1881 population census of the colony.4 It was the repository not only of books but also a large quantity of colonial government records, including a large collection of over 20,000 botanical specimens and other highly significant botanical collections. Everything was completely destroyed in the fire.
Events such as storms and floods in rural Australian districts over the last century have been responsible for the destruction of local collections of books. An apt example occurred during the inundation of South Grafton by the flood in the Clarence River in 1967. The books from the historic Grafton School of Arts Library, which had been moved temporarily from their original repository in Grafton to the South Grafton School of Arts building during the construction of the modern City Centre and regional Library in Grafton, were all destroyed by water and flood silt. This School of Arts Library, one of the earliest established regional institutes (1858) in NSW comprised approximately 5000 books at the beginning of the twentieth century. Also destroyed by this flooding in South Grafton were many local government and municipal records such as property and survey maps, temporarily moved from the old Council Chambers along with the School of Arts books.
Another instance of the impact of extreme weather conditions upon Australian book collections occurred in Canberra during 2007 when a particularly violent hailstorm caused significant damage to a number of buildings across Canberra, including the newly built City Public Library, which suffered severe damage, with considerable loss of books owing to water damage from a leaking roof, serious enough for the City Library to be closed for some months for repairs and restocking. Book collections at
the Australian War Memorial also suffered damage in this storm, along with those in some other libraries in Canberra.
One may confidently assert that one of the greatest enemies of books, other than natural phenomena, is war, both civil wars and world wars.
Often, during wars, book stocks and libraries not only suffer as a consequence of “collateral damage” during armed conflicts, but also they have been deliberately destroyed upon the orders of military and political authorities. One of the most recent examples was the deliberate complete destruction of the National Library of Bosnia, Sarajevo, in 1992 during the war among the Balkan states.5 The Bosnian National Library contained one and a half million books including 155,000 rare books and manuscripts.
Only 10% of the bookstock survived the three days of shelling and burning. The destruction of European libraries during World War II was immense. It has been estimated that books were confiscated from 952 libraries and 531 Institutes throughout Europe during that war. Knuth6 maintains that in Warsaw the Polish National Library lost nearly all of its 700,000 books, while one million books were lost from the University Library in Warsaw.
It has also been estimated that fifteen million books were destroyed in Polish libraries during the German occupation. By the end of World War II, Knuth estimates that Germany had lost between a third and a half of all its books through Allied bombing and Russian confiscation. This amounted to approximately eleven million books, with the national library of Berlin alone, losing two million volumes. During 1940 the aerial fire bombing of London led to the loss of six million books in London’s Paternoster Row district 7 . The historic Guildhall Library in London was burnt to the ground
with the loss of over 25,000 volumes.
There are many other examples of losses of books and libraries during twentieth century wars, revolutions and civil conflicts such as those that occurred during the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s, and the destruction of the Cambodian National Library in the 1970s, when the Library was used as a piggery and its courtyard used to raise poultry, where library books were used to fuel cooking fires.8
During the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait, the State Library of Kuwait suffered great damage to its bookstock.
The few examples cited in this paper lead one to the sad conclusion that next to natural disasters, the greatest enemies of books are humans themselves, in their diverse roles as political dictators, military commanders and political revolutionaries.
1 William Blades, The Enemies of Books (London: Elliot Stock, 1902).
2 Rebecca Knuth, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century (Connecticut: Praeger, 2003).
3 Knuth, op.cit., Preface p.(i).
4 David Latta, Lost Glories: A Memorial to Forgotten Australian Buildings (Sydney:
Angus and Robertson, 1986), pp.136-144.
5 The Times London, 28 August 1992, under the heading “This is Cultural Genocide”.
The text of the report starts: “The destruction of Sarajevo’s 19th Century Town Hall
and the burning of the priceless manuscripts in the Bosnian National Library reveal
the hidden heart of darkness in the cruel Balkan war.”
6 Knuth, op. cit., pp.98-99.
7 Knuth, op. cit., p.91.
8 P Laray, “Cambodia Then, Gaza Now”. (I found this article on the internet, but forgot to make a note of the URL and other bibliographical details and have been unable to locate it again on the Net, so that the reference here has had to remain incomplete, GB).