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The rise, fall and enduring power of libraries

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It’s ironic that unrest has almost always been a feature of libraries over time. This is the point that Matthew Battles, a Fellow at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, makes in his book, Library: An Unquiet History.

The rise, fall and enduring power of libraries
Among the several disturbing images of violence accompanying the recent CAA-NRC protests were those of police personnel barging into the Jamia Millia Islamia library, lobbing tear gas shells and charging at the students within. Even as a metaphor, that’s heavy-handed. The university’s report has claimed that 80 percent of the damage was concentrated here; in the words of vice-chancellor Najma Akhtar, “the trauma is now associated with the library”. According to accounts, one student who had simply gone there to study may lose sight in one eye. That’s tragic and intolerable.
It’s ironic that unrest has almost always been a feature of libraries over time. This is the point that Matthew Battles, a Fellow at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, makes in his book, Library: An Unquiet History. The word “unquiet” in the title is well chosen.
“Libraries are as much about losing the truth—satisfying the inner barbarians of princes, presidents, and pretenders—as about discovering it,” he writes. “The loss of libraries is often enough the product of the fear, ignorance, and greed of their supposed benefactors and protectors.”
Take the case of the illustrious Library of Alexandria that was destroyed in a fire, or a series of fires, over two thousand years ago. According to some assessments, this establishment stored over half a million documents at its height, largely from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, and India. Over a hundred scholars lived here, researching, writing, lecturing, translating and copying documents.
There are many stories to do with the library’s downfall. In one of them, Julius Caesar ordered an Egyptian fleet in the city harbour to be set on fire in 48 BCE. The fire destroyed the ships but alas, spread to the city, burning down the area where the library stood. Another tale is about the destruction of the Serapeum, an ancient Greek temple that stored many manuscripts from the library, in the fourth century CE on the orders of Theophilius, an Alexandrine Christian bishop.
Yet another story, now believed to have been fabricated, states that after the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 640 CE, the Caliph Umar was told of a great library containing “all of the knowledge of the world”. The Caliph is supposed to have replied that the contents either contradicted the Koran, in which case they needed to be destroyed, or they supported the Koran, in which case they were redundant. The library burned for six months and the last remaining scrolls were used as fuel to heat water at local bathhouses.
Today, not a trace remains of this legendary institution. As arch bibliophile Alberto Manguel has written: “The library that wanted to be the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself.”
Battles' book also describes the great libraries of Mesopotamia, with information stored on clay tablets. King Ashurbanipal is best remembered for creating one of the world’s oldest known libraries in what is now Nineveh. “Mesopotamian libraries must lie buried in the great tells, or mounds of ruined cities, that dot the landscape of the Assyrian homeland,” Battles writes. “Precision bombs may now be destroying libraries we don’t even know exist.”
One of the best-known libraries in history was the so-called House of Wisdom in Baghdad which flourished during the Islamic Golden Age. The copying of manuscripts and translations carried out here played a huge role in transporting ideas of classical civilisation to the West. This, too, was destroyed, this time by the Mongols in 1258 CE after the Siege of Baghdad. Legend has it that they killed the scholars and threw their bodies and books into the Tigris, which flowed black and red for days from ink and blood.
The looting of libraries and burning of books has thus gone on for ages, and this is almost always linked to ideology and the exercise of power. Aztecs manuscripts were destroyed by the Conquistadors; Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang is supposed to have ordered that works of history be destroyed so that he could write his own; precious Buddhist texts were burnt by the forces of Bakhtiyar Khilji; and during the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of allegedly heretical books were incinerated. Unfortunately, as Susan Orlean has written, “people have been burning libraries for nearly as long as they’ve been building libraries”.
Closer to our time, the Nazi book conflagrations are well-known, and in a horrid tit-for-tat, the Allied firebombing of Germany claimed dozens of major and small libraries. Over the years, the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Timbuktu Manuscripts, the Jaffna Public Library and the Hakim Nasser Khosrow Balkhi Cultural Center have all been wiped out by such assertions of dominance. The ideas contained in the library books, however, have proved more difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of.
The library at Jamia Millia, named after Dr Zakir Hussain, is of course still intact. One can only trust that in time students will once again find it a safe place to study. Jorge Luis Borges, who was the director of the Argentine National Library for close to two decades, famously said: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Serpents, then, should be kept off the premises.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.
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