Richard Ovenden | 'I wanted to get across why [libraries] are so important for society'

Richard Ovenden | 'I wanted to get across why [libraries] are so important for society'

"For a long time I've felt that libraries and archives are a kind of poor relation of the cultural sector: they don’t have the glamour of the art gallery or the big museum. So I wanted to get across why they are so important for society.”

Richard Ovenden, rare books expert, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and executive head of the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, is talking about his own first book, Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack. It’s a powerful and riveting account of how we have sought, and fought, to preserve knowledge throughout history. Among those who have given laudatory advance quotes are Philip Pullman, Peter Frankopan and Ian Hislop, who says: “No one should keep quiet about this library history.” Burning the Books will also be the BBC Radio 4 “Book of the Week” on publication.

Ovenden, who has worked at the Bodleian since 2003, was appointed the 25th Bodley’s Librarian in 2013. What he calls his “strange and wonderful” job title dates back to 1599 and commemorates the Bodleian’s founder, Sir Thomas Bodley. After graduating with a degree in history and economic history at Durham University, Ovenden stayed on as a graduate trainee librarian. A Master’s in library, archive and information science at UCL followed, after which he got a job as a librarian at the House of Lords for a “very odd couple of years, doing everything from cataloguing new books to dealing with all sorts of weird and wonderful enquiries for their lordships. Many of those were serious ones to do with legislation. But then I’d get a phone call from a peer who was unable to get hold of the Daily Mail on holiday, so needed me to check his bingo numbers.” Ovenden subsequently worked at the National Library of Scotland and at Edinburgh University, before moving to Oxford 17 years ago.

The impetus to write Burning the Books came directly from an op-ed piece Ovenden wrote for the FT in April 2018 about the “Windrush” scandal. “I had read an article in the Saturday Guardian about the destruction of the landing cards of the “Windrush”-era men and women, who were being challenged by the Home Office to prove their right to remain in Britain. The same government department that was putting our fellow citizens under horrendous pressure—pulling them out of their beds in the middle of the night, shoving them on planes—had also destroyed the evidence which these same people could have used to defend their position.” The Guardian article left him “burning with anger” and he wrote the FT piece the next day. It was published the same week with the heading “The ‘Windrush’ scandal reminds us of the value of archives: destroying records and cutting library funds are political acts with grave implications.”

Shortly afterwards, Ovenden embarked on writing a book, something which Catherine Clarke, his literary agent at Felicity Bryan Associates, had been encouraging him to do for some time. Written mainly in the early mornings, around Ovenden’s full-on day job at the Bodleian, it developed into a far wider consideration of the inestimable value of libraries and archives to societies past, present and future.

Knowledge is power

Asserting that “knowledge is power and that is why it has always been under attack”, Burning the Books also focuses on “those who have sought to deny the truth and eradicate the past”; from the destruction of the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh in ancient Mesopotamia: and the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation; to Nazi bonfires of “un-German” and Jewish literature in the 1930s and the deliberate shelling of Sarajevo city library during the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s. Ovenden pays stirring tribute to those who have fought to preserve and rescue knowledge from such attacks; for example, the members of the so-called Paper Brigade in Vilnius, Lithuania, who risked their lives to save works of Jewish literature and other cultural materials from destruction by the Nazis, concealing documents and manuscripts in their clothes and smuggling them into hiding places in the Vilnius ghetto.

Burning the Books also serves as an urgent manifesto for today, highlighting the importance of physical libraries in our increasingly digital era. I tell Ovenden that his book gave me a vivid sense of just how forward-looking libraries are. “That’s one of the things I’ve tried to fight against: the kind of prejudice that says libraries and archives are backward-looking, introspective, nerdy. Actually they play a crucial role right now in supporting the rule of law and the rights of ordinary citizens, as the ‘Windrush’ scandal shows. They help different communities retain or discover a sense of identity, and they also arm us with the knowledge we need to challenge the past.”

Talking of challenging the past, Ovenden speaks to me on the phone from his home in north Oxford only days after slave trader Edward Colston’s statue has been toppled from its plinth in Bristol by Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Later that same day, another demonstration is due to take place outside Oriel College, Oxford, calling for the removal of its statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes. “We have Rhodes’ archive in the Bodleian, as well as those of other colonial figures,” Ovenden tells me. “Such records have been used mostly in a triumphalist way by past historians. Now the time is right for re-engaging with them, and reinterpreting them with today’s narrative. We’ve started a visiting fellowship in black and south Asian history to enable scholars to come here to the Bodleian and do exactly that. We also need to archive what’s happening right now: the protests; the injustices of the present moment.”

New approaches

Burning the Books also delves into the challenges libraries and archives worldwide face in recording the here and now, especially when it comes to social media. “So much of life is being played out in ways that it’s incredibly difficult to archive, and we need new approaches to dealing with that. Because otherwise we’ll lose a whole period of crucial evidence about what is going on in society today,” says Ovenden. He also echoes the fears of many other commentators right now, over the way in which data is being harvested by such global tech giants such as Amazon and Google. As he wrote in his FT piece: “Libraries and archives exist to ensure, on society’s behalf, long-term access to information... The data which are created every day by users of the large online platforms, such as Google and Facebook, are not the responsibility of any public body, and will only be retained by these companies if they see a commercial advantage in doing so.”

Major public libraries worldwide, including the UK’s legal deposit libraries, of which the Bodleian is one, are attempting to find legal and practical ways of gathering such data for the public domain. But such efforts are extremely costly, and libraries and archives around the world are struggling to find sufficient funding to meet the challenges the ubiquity of digital information presents, while continuing to preserve and provide access to the paper records of the past.

While Ovenden has his attention firmly fixed on such future global challenges, he is eloquent when speaking of his own long-standing debt to libraries. “My parents were working-class, and while we did have books at home, there weren’t very many. And so my local library in Deal in Kent, where I grew up, was an absolutely transformational institution for me. Libraries are neutral spaces, where you can be who you want to be. We lose them at our peril.”

Book Extract 
Modern life has become increasingly obsessed with the short-term. Investors look to gain instant returns, and trading has become automated to such an extent that billions of trades are made every hour in stock exchanges. This fixation with the short-term is evident in many walks of life. Long-term thinking has become unfashionable. The memory of mankind, the knowledge it has created in all its myriad forms, from cuneiform tablets to digital information, is never of purely short-term use. It may be cheaper, more convenient, easier and faster to destroy knowledge than to appraise, catalogue, preserve and make it available but to abandon knowledge for the sake of short-term expediency is a sure route to weakening society’s grip on truth.