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Facts in Flames
Trump's dishonesty reminds us why we must preserve documents. Even in the Digital Age, archivists are crucial.
A bonfire burned on Berlin’s most important thoroughfare, Unter den Linden, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm University on May 10, 1933. Watched by a cheering crowd of almost 40,000, a group of students marched toward the flames, carrying the bust of the Jewish intellectual Magnus Hirschfeld, and threw it atop thousands of seized books by other “un-German” writers. Rows of young men in Nazi uniforms gave the Heil Hitler salute, while similar scenes took place in 90 other locations across Germany. The bonfires were a warning sign of the attack on knowledge about to be unleashed by the Nazi regime; more than 100 million books may have been destroyed during the Holocaust.
“There is no political power without power over the archive,” the French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote in his classic work Archive Fever. Authoritarian rulers have long understood the truth of this statement. But what does it mean in the Digital Age?
To many, libraries seem less important than ever—everything’s online, isn’t it? Yet control of knowledge remains a key battleground in the fight for democracy. At the outset of the Trump presidency in January 2017, his adviser Kellyanne Conway was claiming “alternate facts.” By the end of his presidency, after years of dishonesty, Trump sought to reverse his electoral loss with a “firehose of falsehood” strategy, persisting with the obfuscation even after a mob of supporters stormed the Capitol.
Protecting democracies against “alternate facts” means capturing the truth as well as statements that deny it, so that open societies have reference points to trust and rely on. For over three millennia, librarians and archivists have developed systems, methodologies, techniques and an ethos for preservation to ensure that knowledge persists. Their focus on facts underpins integrity in public decision-making; enables a sense of place in our communities; and ensures diversity of ideas, opinions and memory.
By contrast, recent cases of “book-burning” remind us of how ominous the destruction of information is. During the Bosnian War, the mass murder of humans went alongside the destruction of libraries and archives. Serb forces targeted the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina with incendiary shells in August 1992, while forces raided provincial archives across the country to destroy records of land ownership as a means of eradicating the official memory of where Muslims had lived. Millions of books and documents in libraries and archives all over Bosnia and Kosovo were destroyed in the ethnic conflicts of the former Yugoslavia—attacks that became part of the charge sheets at the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia.
Officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroyed documents on a massive scale too. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was hampered by this; in its final report, it devoted an entire section to the destruction of records. “The story of apartheid is, amongst other things, the story of the systematic elimination of thousands of voices that should have been part of the nation’s memory,” it said. “The tragedy is that the former government deliberately and systematically destroyed a huge body of state records and documentation in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitize the history of oppressive rule.”
In Iraq, after the American-led coalition invaded in 2003, U.S. forces moved many of the key state records to the United States, where some, such as the archives of the Ba’ath Party, remained until recently. Just as the eradication of records can presage violence, the recent return of these documents can, I hope, form part of a process of national “truth and reconciliation” in Iraq.
Librarians today are not the stereotype of tweed-wearing introverts obsessed with enforcing silence. They are skilled professionals, often with subject-domain specialisms, adept at navigating physical and digital forms of knowledge–trained in project management and budgetary controls, and well-versed in deploying new technologies to support the public in identifying bogus online information, while using digitization to preserve fragile documents.
Digital technology lends itself to extraordinary archival projects, as in the work of the organization Mnemonic, whose Syrian Archive contains millions of online records about the civil war, alongside a Yemeni Archive and a Sudanese Archive, providing historians, journalists and international criminal lawyers the information to understand these conflicts. Other archival projects online include the Xinjiang Victims Database, which aims to document the Chinese campaign against the Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in northwest China.
As for institutional libraries and archives, they are highly trusted by the public—yet are experiencing declining levels of funding. This is happening when knowledge is increasingly held in digital form, controlled not by public institutions but by tech companies. How can we protect society from the “power over the archive” exercised by private corporations? Greater regulation should sit alongside a new role for libraries as citizens’ data sanctuaries, accountable to the public, and funded by a tax on tech-industry profits.
Looking back at the Nazi book-burnings in 1933, this low moment for human truth had lesser-known responses that should not be forgotten. Exactly a year later, on May 10, 1934, the Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (German Freedom Library, also known as the German Library of Burnt Books) opened in Paris, founded by German-Jewish writer Alfred Kantorowicz, with support from writers and intellectuals such as André Gide, Bertrand Russell and Heinrich Mann. Rapidly, it collected more than 20,000 volumes—not just the books that had been targeted for burning in Germany but also copies of key Nazi texts, in order to help understand the emerging regime.
The Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York established an American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in December 1934, with noted intellectuals on its advisory board, including Albert Einstein and Upton Sinclair. The library proclaimed itself a means of preserving and promoting Jewish culture at a time of renewed oppression.
If we are to heed George Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four—“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth”—then we must ensure that libraries and archives have the resources and public support to serve as our guardians of knowledge.
Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, University of Oxford, is the author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.