The resilience of libraries

In recent weeks, Russian barbarity has damaged or destroyed many libraries in Ukraine — along with hospitals, schools, universities, and residential areas. But the librarians of this battered nation have risen to the challenge. Libraries that are still standing are “buzzing like hives” day and night, according to the President of the Ukrainian Library Association.

Barricades protect Ukraine’s National Parliamentary Library. (Source: IFLA)

Some have become neighbourhood bomb shelters or field hospitals. Some have organised practical support for military defence, such as weaving camouflage nets. As far as possible, all are continuing and even extending their traditional functions. They are not only providing reading material for the families sheltering in libraries but also packaging books for transfer to adjacent countries where huge numbers of Ukrainian refugees are now arriving. And a particular focus is on actively countering the disinformation that runs rife in times like these.

The resilience of libraries in Ukraine is the latest episode in a long and fascinating story of devotion to civilised values by the keepers of institutionalised literary knowledge in the face of formidable challenges.

I’ve just finished reading two books that remind me how extraordinarily durable and adaptable, over many centuries, book-centred establishments of one kind or another have been. The Library: A Fragile History, by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, traces permutations of this cultural phenomenon from ancient times to the present day. Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr, is an inventive work of fiction written (as the author puts it in an appendix) “to show how a book survives through time, both because of human technologies and because of human stewards.” In their different ways these two substantial volumes (over 500 pages each) are inspiring tributes to the ideals that libraries exist to cherish.

Pettegree and Weduwen record in great detail the long development of the library from ancient collections of clay tablets and papyrus scrolls to parchment codices, from small hoards of unique manuscripts to huge assemblages of printed books … and so on, through countless vicissitudes, up to the emergence of public libraries in the 19th century and our 21st-century information hubs dominated by digitally disseminated texts.

As this comprehensive chronicle’s subtitle emphasises, the ability of book repositories to survive has always been fragile: they have often faced the ravages of natural events — from insidious incursions of mould, rot and vermin to sudden accidental disasters like fires, floods and earthquakes — as well as the depredations of thieves, plunderers, censors (political or religious), book burners and warmongers.

The library of Holland House, London, after a bombing raid in 1940. (Source: UK Gov’t)

The two 20th-century world wars devastated countless European public collections across Europe. Priceless literary treasures were lost — bombed to smithereens, stolen by opportunists, cancelled by ideologues.

In Britain the Blitzkrieg of WW2 wiped out the complete library book-stock of city after city;  in a matter of days, more than a million books perished in Exeter alone, for instance.

On the other hand, a few memorable wartime images testify also to lucky escapes for some libraries and a keep-calm-&-carry-on stoicism on the part of their custodians and users, as in a famous photo of readers imperturbably browsing shelves in the ruins of Holland House.

Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is dedicated to “librarians then, now and in the years to come,” and its acknowledgements page includes the author’s “thanks to every librarian who helped me find a text I needed or didn’t yet know I needed.”

It’s an elaborate fictional work, a great feat of imagination and narrative ingenuity that sweeps through history from the heyday of classical Greece to an imagined future in which human initiative is almost subordinate to the dictates of artificial intelligence. The latter has become the controller of a purportedly infinite library of information – yet it turns out that this cannot meet all emotional needs, and so one resistant human, a young girl, secretly creates a personal library of her own, thus linking her situation to a chain of earlier storytellers. Similarly spirited, but at quite different points in time and place, several other youthful characters in this novel manage to defy the destructive and repressive forces around them with enough resourcefulness to ensure the transmission of an ancient text through centuries of hazard.

Attached to the end of this novel is a conversation with the author in which he salutes the fact that the world’s oldest extant stories have reached us only because they were conscientiously preserved and copied over many centuries in imperial, monastic and private libraries. Long live books, their creators and their custodians!

4 thoughts on “The resilience of libraries

  1. Thank you, Pamela. Yes, books not only embody much of history, they can also sometimes change its course.

  2. Very interesting, Ian. A few random associations: 1) more about the book trade than libraries, but I was fascinated by 2) I fancy there is something interesting about early Oz libraries in the early pages of Robert Dixon’s splendid The Course of Empire: Neo-classical Culture in New South Wales, 1788-1860 (1986) 3) As a postgrad my supervisor asked me to investigate African sculptures in so obvious text (at that time) as Lawrence’s Women Love in the British Library, then located in the British Museum. I was mystified by the long wait until a week later a slip came back: ‘bombed in the war.’

  3. Thanks, Richard.
    Your anecdote about the British Museum Library nicely illustrates the impact of WW2 damage there: that particular institution was (according to Pettegree & Weduwen) hit 8 times by high explosives and numerous times by incendiaries.
    I’ll follow up the references you cite. The history of the book trade is, of course, a huge subject in itself, but in some periods it has also significantly affected library practices.

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