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Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden


Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge
by Richard Ovenden


Knowledge is power and nowhere has it been better preserved down the millennia than in libraries. Here Richard Ovenden, author of Burning the Books and the librarian in charge of Oxford University's Bodleian Libraries, talks us through books that shed light on what libraries are and what they do, and why they remain absolutely vital in our digital age.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden


Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge
by Richard Ovenden


Before we get to the books about libraries you’ve chosen, I wanted to ask what might seem like an obvious question, but I’m not sure that it is as obvious as I thought: What is a library?

I say that it’s an organized body of knowledge. You can also have other organized bodies of knowledge, like archives, which are different to libraries, or indeed, things like Wikipedia. But libraries as organized bodies of knowledge are accumulations of texts or other material or documentary evidence of some kind, either textual, visual, or indeed audio, that is in physical or in digital form, and which have been purposefully acquired in order to provide information or knowledge resources on a particular subject or approach which is normally defined by some kind of policy. Such bodies of knowledge have services set around them.

There are two sorts of people who are vital to this, it seems. First of all, there are the librarians. Secondly, the community of scholars around the library.

Yes, as Ranganathan says in his “The Five Laws of Library Science”, every book its reader and every reader his or her book. The library must think of the user when developing its policy and implementing its policy to build its collection.

Could you just say a little bit as well about your role as Bodley’s Librarian, because it’s an amazing position to be in?

I’m the director of a research library, but it is more like a research library system. The Bodleian Library in Oxford, the historic institution, which I’m the 25th person to be responsible for, is a collection of books, formed partly through gift, partly through legal deposit, and partly through purchase.

“It’s not this safe and cozy world that popular fiction might portray, it’s a dangerous game to be in”

It’s also an institution to which other libraries have been attached. In the 20th century, that was through a process of affiliation. In 2000, it became an organizational integration. There are now 29 libraries that are integrated with the Bodleian, which I’m responsible for. Then there are about 60 other libraries in Oxford, that are coordinated—that’s perhaps the best way to describe it—by the Bodleian in some way. So, they use the same online catalogue system that we provide and maintain and add their records to it. You can search across 90-odd libraries to find books, which may be digital materials that may be collected by any of them. It saves you the effort of doing that.

The Bodleian is an amazing library, and within it are some incredible books. Presumably you’ve not only seen but touched and experienced the magic of engaging with some of these relics. Also, they’re not just relics in the sense of belonging to the past because they have contemporary resonance as well, people keep coming back to them and discovering new things.

That’s one of the fantastic things about the job that I’m in, particularly because I came from the rare books world. I’ve always had a job in libraries where that has been a key part of what I’ve done, and that’s fired me up and inspired me. Today I do much, much less of that but, still, when you’re touching the d’Orville Euclid, the oldest surviving text of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, written in the ninth century in the imperial academy in Byzantium by Stephen the Clerk for Bishop Arethas of Patras, or when you look at the Clarke Plato, which is the earliest surviving manuscript of Plato‘s Dialogues, which was also on the shelves of Bishop Arethas’s library in the ninth century—these two books parted company sometime in the early Middle Ages, but ended up united in the 20th century on the shelves of the Bodleian—you really feel that you’re part of the transmission of knowledge and that the library is a conduit of knowledge, not just from one mind to another, but from one epoch to another.

There are also manuscripts, letters, and notebooks in the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to see Kafka’s notebooks there. Even if the words are exactly the same as in a printed edition, there is something incredible about seeing his handwriting in small, scrappy notebooks.

One of the things that I had to do when I first arrived at the Bodleian as Keeper of Special Collections was to acquire the archive of one branch of the Shelley family – Mary Shelley and her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. That included the manuscript of Frankenstein. She concocted the story in that famous thunderstorm in Byron’s villa on the banks of Lake Geneva. Then she goes off into Geneva and buys a blank book and writes the text on it. Here it is, this notebook, which has a Geneva watermark. You can see Percy Shelley’s suggestions for improving the phraseology or the wording. I must have touched that notebook 500 times, and it never fails to send a shiver down my spine.

Before I go too green with envy, let’s get to your choice of books about libraries. Which one shall we discuss first?

We could start with an almost ancient book itself now, which is JW Clark’s The Care of Books. This has as its subtitle “an essay on the development of libraries and their fittings, from the earliest times to the end of the 18th century.” I have the second edition, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1909 and it’s well illustrated with photographs and line drawings.

It is an absolutely fantastic historical survey, very detailed, very meticulous scholarship. He goes and visits all the libraries he discusses, right from the ancient world. He’s in an era which is just learning about the excavations in Mesopotamia by Austen Henry Layard, which uncovered the libraries of Ashurbanipal. That had happened 40 years before, and the cuneiform tablets which were in those libraries and archives had been brought back to London, to the British Museum, for decipherment. He picks up on this knowledge and also talks about libraries that are better known, like Hadrian’s Library at Athens. A lot of it is about famous libraries in Britain, like the Oxford and Cambridge college libraries. He’s writing from Cambridge, where he’s an architectural historian and writes a famous architectural history of Cambridge. He is also reading literary texts to pick up snippets of information about how libraries were organized or managed, or how writers engaged with libraries.

I still go to this book for basic information as a starting point. Someday, I’d quite like to update it in the kind of detail that he has. He pulls together a whole variety of sources to give this long overview over 2,000 years.

In a way, it has the same structure as your book, Burning the Books, in the sense that you’ve got that arc of history, though it sounds as if his has an architectural emphasis, whereas yours is more about the fragility of knowledge?

I’d say his book is not purely an architectural history because he does talk about the systems that librarians put in place in order to organize them. He thinks in three dimensions and looks for evidence, not just of the layout of the library in architectural terms, but in the fittings too: What kind of desks did they have? What kind of seats did they have? What kind of catalogues did they have and how were they arranged? How were the books organized on the shelves? It’s more of a practical guide to how libraries were organized in the past.

It doesn’t quite get to the more philosophical detail of the organization of knowledge, classification schemes and things like that. Nor does it talk a lot about the profession of librarian: how did these early librarians get taught their trade? What was the relationship between librarians in monasteries and scriptoria? Those kinds of things aren’t really dealt with in his book, but it’s moving towards that.

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More recent scholarship is much more fragmentary. There are very detailed articles, or there’s the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland, for example, which I wrote a chapter in the first volume, which pulls everything together. But in terms of a single, holistic way of reading about the history of libraries this is still a fantastic book. He writes extremely well, and it’s well-footnoted and extremely well-illustrated, both with drawings and photographs. I think being able to envisage how they’re organized is an important aspect of libraries because they are three-dimensional. He really helps the reader with those illustrations.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where a library is central. There are very long descriptions about the physical layout of the library, which mirrors a certain kind of cataloguing system and how it treats prohibited books. It’s interesting that you omitted that book from you list, I thought it might appear.

I wondered about including it. It is wonderfully evocative about libraries. I read it while I was an undergraduate. I’d gone interrailing with a friend in Italy, and my friend picked up an English translation and read it before anyone in the UK had. I remember reading it on the overnight train back from Rome. It’s wonderful in the way it weaves the history of ideas and religious ideas, of heresy and all these things into the plot in a very sophisticated way. The library is almost a character in the book. But it’s just slightly too fanciful. And the librarian is the villain, so I couldn’t recommend it!

Yes, because librarians (and libraries) clearly aren’t villains on the whole. As you stress in your book, they’re mounting this amazing defense against tides of false and misleading information and the desire to erase things, to get rid of unpalatable truths and to hide politically sensitive material forever. We need to stand up for librarians where we can.

That’s part of the reason why I wrote the book, to draw attention not just to the function that libraries and archives play in society, but to the role that librarians and archivists play. I’ve gone through my career either being stereotyped in the popular imagination or being just ignored and treated as irrelevant or worthless. The public needs to know what librarians are, and what we do. It’s not this safe and cozy world that popular fiction might portray, it’s a dangerous game to be in. I have just written a piece for the FT on librarians and archivists in Afghanistan, where they’re literally under attack. I’ve been in touch with one archivist who got beaten up last week, his money and his laptop stolen. He had to get out of Afghanistan and is now in Pakistan because of the work he was doing.

There’s also a stereotype of librarians as being somehow out of touch because they’re so bookish, when in reality they have to be right at the cutting edge with new technology. With each major change of technology, there’s a risk that the thing that’s most treasured, the main resource of the library, will be lost or no longer be accessible—whether it’s papyrus fragmenting or digital books replacing paper ones, or somebody pressing a button that deletes all the books.

Yes. Also, still on the Afghanistan theme, there are a number of libraries around the world at the moment who are archiving Afghan websites, because they are being attacked by the Taliban. There’s one website of an independent library that has been built since 2017, in memory of a woman who was killed by a Taliban suicide bomb. That library has been attacked by the Taliban and the website has been taken down. We don’t know why. But capturing that information is of great current concern.

Let’s move to your second book. This is Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People, which is more general than a book about libraries.

It is, but one of the key aspects of Eric’s book is this idea that libraries—and he’s really talking about public libraries—are social infrastructure. He talks very eloquently about the New York Public Library system, and particularly about the branch libraries, how they are places where public education can take place, where the patrons are not judged by how much money they have, but are treated equally, no matter what segment of society they come from. They are open long hours, sometimes they’re there simply to provide a warm place for people to gather. Sometimes they’re the only place that young people can go for quiet study if they have an assignment to do for their school, because their home is too noisy or disruptive. Sometimes they are places where people go to find bits of information for practical reasons, like they’re starting a small business, and they don’t have the resources to get information in other ways.

In the 19th century, libraries began to be established as a legal requirement by public authorities. I think the public library is evolving from being simply a place for self-service, to being a place which is much more proactive in communities. So, during lockdown, lots of public libraries in the UK and in the US would know their elderly clientele and they had a rota to telephone them. If they knew that there was an elderly person living on their own who would normally come into the library, they would call them up and just talk to them. Now, this isn’t what you get taught to do in library school, or at least it wasn’t when I was there, but it’s part of that sense that libraries are community places.

You see that also in local history collections, or in exhibits that local libraries put on to commemorate elements of their local community, whether it’s in New York, for example, perhaps celebrating the history of different waves of immigration, the ethnic makeup of the boroughs, and their contribution to those communities.

What I also like about the book is that Eric Klinenberg is a sociologist. He’s not someone you would immediately expect to write about libraries. He’s coming at it with the perspective of someone who’s written about inequality, about the impact of the heatwave in Chicago and climate change. It’s fantastic to have somebody looking at libraries in this way and drawing attention to them. He wrote a very powerful essay in the New York Times as an op-ed, just before the book came out, which was very influential, and widely read in America. It’s a book that identifies the library in our moment in history and what it can do for society.

Isn’t there a worry, though, that if you focus not on the reading material but on the social functions of a library, it could be reduced to an app eventually? You don’t need a physical space for books, you don’t need people who are curating them, all you need is a very well-constructed app that allows you to get access to everything?

I don’t think that’s true, partly because not everybody has access to the internet. If you look at the figures in the UK, the digitally disenfranchised are an extraordinary segment of the population and that’s also where public libraries are very valuable. Not only to provide the technology, the hardware and the internet access but, much more importantly, librarians who are supportive and will help you without judging you, will guide you through the complex interfaces of a public or government digital system that you have to navigate in order to get public benefits, for example. A library might be somewhere where you can meet other people and form a community group. A local society might meet in a room that the library provides in order to, say, learn a language. There are all sorts of things that could be distilled into an app, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be an improvement.

Coming from a lower middle-class background with a house full of books, going to the public library was still an eyeopener for me: the range of books, the things that I borrowed. I’ve got a deep affection for libraries, and that continued through working on my PhD, when I spent a lot of time in libraries. But there are people coming through, like my children who are now adults, who use libraries as a place where they study, not as a place to go for books. I wonder if that’s a trend, that libraries are becoming spaces within which people work, rather than where they actually get hold of the books?

I hear that perspective a lot. I hear it from some senior administrators in universities. I would argue that libraries have always been physical places to work. Perhaps in the past they would have been more of a curated space, if you like, conducive to quiet study and deep concentration, where some of the materials that you use for your writing may indeed be provided by that library in hardcopy form. However, libraries today rely less on analogue materials, and more on digital materials. Those digital materials can indeed be consulted anywhere that you have internet access and the ability to access them through some form of authentication. We are developing the concept of  ‘Space as a Service’ which sums up this issue, I think.

Depending on the rights that are licensed for that particular book, presumably?

Yes, that’s what authentication means here, that you are authenticating yourself as somebody who is encompassed by the rights that the library negotiates on your behalf. So perhaps there is a slight moving away from the ‘you can only access this by coming into the library’ and therefore that’s why you come into the library.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily ever been solely the case, that the only people who came into the library 40 years ago were coming to look at books. There were plenty of people who were coming in there simply to write and think. Bruce Chatwin came into the Bodleian, and I don’t think he looked at books in the Bodleian much. That wasn’t mostly why he was going in there. He was going in there as a place to think and to write after he came back from Patagonia or Australia. That’s what he did, he wrote those books up in the Bod.

Shall we go on to your third book? This is The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

This book is in a somewhat similar vein to Eric Klinenberg’s, in that it’s concentrating on public libraries and trying to reignite a sense of their power and function. But it approaches this in a very different way. It’s solely about the Los Angeles Public Library. It tells, essentially, two narratives. One is about the destruction of the LA Public Library in 1987, through a fire. The other is more of a historical account of the evolution of the library and the librarians who worked in it, the kinds of things that they did for their community and what it’s like today. I like the way that it’s arranged with old-fashioned catalogue cards at the start of each chapter, which broadly identify the themes. It’s a little gimmicky in that way, but I fell for it. It’s really well written. She writes for The New Yorker and is an absolutely terrific writer.

“The public library is evolving from being simply a place for self-service, to being a place which is much more proactive in communities”

Particularly in California—which is a very digital world in the second decade of the 21st century—why would a public library in a great metropolis still have value? Why would its stories still be of interest? The answer is that the stories are gripping: how the LA Public Library responded to the First World War, or how particularly female librarians rose to the top of their profession and became the directors of the LA Public Library in the middle of the 20th century. It’s a great reminder of the power of a civic institution, even though it’s written by an outsider—or perhaps because it’s written by an outsider, somebody who wasn’t employed by the library.

This is something that I worry about a lot. You’re speaking to someone who’s written a book about libraries and archives, who is a librarian and an archivist. Are we too inside the world we’re writing about to write objectively and dispassionately? Or are we bringing a sense of the complexity of the role, particularly in the 21st century, that somebody outside might not be able to comprehend so readily?

A quotation in your book that struck me is when you’re writing about the destruction of a number of great libraries, including the Library of Alexandria, and talking about the ethos that connects contemporary librarians with librarians of the past. You write, “What survives is more of an ethos—the ethos that knowledge holds great power, that the pursuit of gathering it and preserving it is a valuable task, and that its loss can be an early warning sign of a decaying civilisation.” That focus on gathering and preserving knowledge and recognizing the importance of that, you get an acute sense of that when you see how easily it’s lost, how easily the chains are broken.

You’re absolutely right, and thank you for picking up that quote. One other thing that’s going on at the moment that I try to address sensitively in the book is that my profession has been through a period where its emphasis has moved away from the collection to the service. There’s a librarian in America called Scott Walter who coined the phrase ‘the service turn’ that libraries have gone through. The main focus is, ‘What are the needs of our readers? We’re not going to obsess about the collection and building it and owning things, or preservation and those kinds of things, we’re going to focus on getting the books to the readers.’

I simplify grossly, but that’s certainly something I’ve lived through in my profession. Something that we in the Bodleian have tried to do under my leadership and my predecessor’s leadership is to try and be much more user centric. That’s the phrase we use a lot. There is a danger that if you’re just interested in preservation or acquiring collections, you’re not going to get advancement in your career because it’s not what the bosses of libraries think is important. In the profession people aren’t focused on the preservation side of things, you even see people boasting about getting rid of collections. They’re moving resources and funding away from preservation in order to make access better funded and resourced. My response to that is that we must recognize what preservation does for society, and I try to use the phrase ‘preservation as a service’. It is not just something that people do in the back room to try to keep things away from readers and say, ‘This is all mine!’ There was a bit of that in the past and I think that’s partly why the service turn came about. There were librarians who felt that the collection was theirs and didn’t mind if it took 30 years to catalogue it.

I’ve tried to give talks about preservation as service for communities. We did a project with the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities in the UK, because we have great Ethiopian and Eritrean collections. They were grateful to us for having preserved these things and kept their culture alive in the UK, where they had ended up, and that they can access it. They could see the colors and hear the language again, and it was incredibly moving. So, preservation as a service.

The flipside of preservation, though, as you’ve stressed in your book, is destruction. It’s a sad history, this history of libraries. So many great libraries have been destroyed, or huge portions of their collections have been destroyed, throughout history. It seems that it’s always a fight against loss, as much as the positive activity of preserving and cataloguing things. Some of the loss is deliberate, some of it is accidental, but it’s still loss. I was struck by the quotation in your Burning the Books from Gibbon about the destruction of the Library of Alexandria being an occasion for ‘regret and indignation’. I’m left with this feeling of ‘Oh, no, all those books that we’ll never see! All those amazing things that have been lost!’ Without that sense that these things might go, presumably there wouldn’t be the same drive to preserve?

That’s what motivated Thomas Bodley to re-found the Bodleian Library. He recognized the losses of the Reformation. The generation before him had plundered the libraries, including the one which he re-founded. He went to Duke Humfrey’s Library and set his staff at the library door “being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students’. He basically disinherited his family and poured all his money into it

I love that he put his money where his mouth was, and just said, ‘Okay, we need to keep this well-funded for the future.’

Yes. Unfortunately, the endowment that he gave the university to fund my post was loaned to Charles I in the 1640s to fight the Civil War and was never returned. It was recorded as a debt in our annual accounts until 1798, when it was written off.

Let’s go on to the next book, which is The Library: A World History by James Campbell.

James is an architectural historian and this is a book he wrote with photographer Will Pryce, a wonderful photographer. To some extent, it brings Clark up to date in that it’s a long sweep of history, it begins with the ancient world and moves forward to modern libraries. Like Clark, he is an architectural historian, but his focus is much more on the architecture rather than on the functioning of libraries.

But I think the real strength of his book is in the section on the great European libraries of the 18th and 19th centuries. So it includes institutions I’ve been to like the Strahov Library in Prague, the Mafra in Portugal, the Admont Abbey Library, the Abbey Library of Saint Gall in Switzerland. These are extraordinary Baroque and Rococo creations, which look inside like wedding cakes. They’re absolutely amazing. I think this period is his specialty as an architectural historian, and he writes about them with great passion and interest and depth. I often use it as a way into library history, as a first port of call.

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It’s called a world history and there are some libraries in China and Japan that he does include, but it is predominantly about European and North American libraries. I showed him around the Bodleian once, and I took him on various behind-the-scenes tours when he was doing his research.

The book costs 50 quid, but that’s pretty good value: there must be 300 colour photographs and Thames and Hudson publishes it beautifully. As a broad overview of the history of libraries as structures it’s an absolutely fantastic book and I highly recommend it.

I should mention that I haven’t yet read a new book published by Profile called The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. It’s not published until next month, but I’m reviewing it. It’s highly possible that if we’d done this interview in a month’s time, I might have recommended that one.

Going back to the Campbell book, obviously these libraries are quite amazing physical, imposing buildings. Are great libraries like this being built still?

Oh, yes. Incredible libraries are being built all the time. There are very small, jewel-like libraries being built in Oxford and Cambridge colleges. St. John’s College, Oxford just built a beautiful new library. The architects Wright and Wright have a specialism in libraries, so they also did the new extension for the library at Magdalen College, Oxford as well as the new library at Lambeth Palace. It’s an attempt to reconnect Lambeth Palace with the local community and to make the palace and the library and its treasures and the whole estate more accessible. There’s a tower that members of the public are allowed to go up and view the gardens and the neighborhood. It’s a viewpoint which otherwise doesn’t exist in that part of London. It also has exhibition galleries. That’s quite a good example of a new small boutique library.

But there are also great big new library buildings being built and or that have been built recently. Rem Koolhaas did the amazing Seattle public library nearly 20 years ago now. It’s absolutely astonishing modern architecture. A Japanese architecture firm called SANAA did the new university library in Lausanne for the École Polytechnique. It’s called the Rolex Learning Center, so you can guess where the money came from, but it’s like a piece of Swiss cheese that’s been dropped from space. It’s the only library that I’ve ever been in that has internal hills – so the cheese hasn’t dropped flat. It is absolutely wild, but it’s incredibly popular. It’s open to the public. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant there too. It’s absolutely vast, a whole campus center, as well as the library. The maths library has this very, very quiet, silent space so that you can really think through those equations. Then there’s flexible seating so that students can work in groups but separated off because there’s a hill between them and the maths section.

There’s another, even more photographically-driven book, with beautiful colour photographs, by a famous German photographer, Candida Höfer that I like. Again, when she came to photograph in the Bodleian, I had the pleasure of escorting her to the Radcliffe Camera and to Duke Humfrey’s Library. She’s sometimes photographing the same libraries as Will Pryce, but in a very different way. Will Pryce seems, to me, to capture the atmosphere of the libraries he visits, the lighting is much more variable. Candida Höfer’s style is much more analytic. She comes from the Dusseldorf School so she was taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher.

The Bechers were famous for obsessively photographing very similar architectural features with subtle variations. Where somebody else might look for dissimilarities between libraries, I suspect she’d find similarities?

The photographs are laid out on the page, without text. You’re driven to the photographs, whereas the text and the photographs are integrated with each other in the Campbell and Pryce book. But that analytic style, that very geometrical approach, conveys the beauty of the ordinary, which I guess is what the Dusseldorf School was trying to do. That repetition with those small variations is where beauty lies. You see the similarities between libraries that may be separated by geography. Or she photographs piles of books, with just their four edges outward. She’s drawn to the pattern, to the geometry, to the visual impact, of what she sees, whereas we as librarians might just see a pile of books and think, ‘Quick, let’s get them on the shelf.’

It’s the visual equivalent of musical minimalism for me. That book didn’t quite make the five though?

It was a near miss. It doesn’t have that utilitarian value that the other five have for what they write about libraries. Like you, Nigel, I’m a great lover of photography. This is a book to go to just to see the beauty of a great photographer at work in great libraries.

Let’s talk about your final choice, The Library at Night.

This is a by a wonderful writer called Alberto Manguel. He’s Argentinian but has lived both in France and in Canada for much of his life. He now lives in Portugal. For a time, he was the national librarian of Argentina, the successor to Jorge Luis Borges who was his great hero.

This is someone who is a great writer and a great teacher, who has also been both a professional librarian, running the national library of the country of his birth, but also a serious book collector. He’s not a collector of fine or rare books, particularly, but a collector of books to read. I think his private library is now 30,000 books or something like that. I’ve got some way to go before I get there! His collection has now been acquired by the Portuguese government as a center for writing, literacy and the appreciation of books and texts. They’re building a special building to house it in and­—full disclosure—I’m one of the advisors for him on this project.

But I really would recommend the book. It’s not a textbook, it’s not a history, although it does cover a lot of history. It’s a series of meditations, really, on libraries. He’s somebody who, in his private library, when it was in their home in France, would get up in the middle of the night and just wander in and pull books from the shelves and read them because he couldn’t sleep. It’s a series of encounters with books, both books as artifacts, and as time travel. It’s a meditation on libraries, both institutional and private, and what it means to collect books, whether you’re Aby Warburg, or Hans Sloane—whose collection was the foundation of the British Museum Library (now the British Library)—or one of the librarians in Tabriz or Baghdad before it was destroyed by the Mongols. It’s a book which you can dip into, you don’t need to read it from cover to cover. It’s got an index. It’s a book which gives enormous pleasure but also insight into the motivations for collecting books, organizing them into bodies of knowledge, and all that those tasks entail. Ultimately, it’s about the pleasure of doing that, the pleasure of owning books, the pleasure of collecting them, of organizing them. He’s also written another book called Packing My Library.

The prequel to Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library”?

Yes, because he had to move his library several times. It’s a nice coda to The Library at Night.

It strikes me listening to you talk about Manguel and Borges, and thinking of Philip Larkin, who is another famous librarian who wrote books, that a lot of librarians write. Do you think people who want to write are drawn to becoming librarians, or is it because hanging out with all those books, you eventually succumb to doing it yourself?

That’s a good question. My next book is going to be about librarians. I’m accumulating notes of various people who were librarians who we think of in other ways, like Casanova, for example. Or Mao Zedong: the Communist Party in China was founded by his boss, Li Dazhao, who was the director of the Peking University Library where Mao worked. Leibniz was a librarian, who wrote an important treatise on archival theory. David Hume was the librarian of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh in the 18th century. There are great associations between writers or intellectuals and libraries, but very few of them write about their libraries. Leibniz’s work on archival theory is not quite what I mean here, very few of them write about what it’s like to be a librarian or what it means to be a librarian, and perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to Alberto’s book.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

September 27, 2021

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Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden is the 25th Bodley’s Librarian, the senior executive position of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Previously, he held positions at Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh. He moved to the Bodleian Libraries in 2003 as Keeper of Special Collections, becoming Deputy Librarian in 2011, and Librarian in 2014. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.

Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden

Richard Ovenden is the 25th Bodley’s Librarian, the senior executive position of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Previously, he held positions at Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh. He moved to the Bodleian Libraries in 2003 as Keeper of Special Collections, becoming Deputy Librarian in 2011, and Librarian in 2014. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the American Philosophical Society.