Words under fire: When libraries become targets

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117556″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Almost three decades ago, some three million books and countless artefacts went up in flames when Sarajevo’s National and University Library – inside the Vijecnica (city hall) – was burned to the ground. The destruction of the Vijecnica at the beginning of the war was a symbol for one of the aggressor’s main objectives – silencing the soul of the city and crushing the cultural identity of an entire society.”

So said Dunja Mijatović, the current Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, who was born in Sarajevo when it was part of Yugoslavia.

Just weeks before the anniversary of the burning of the library on 25 August 1992, Mijatović spoke to Index about its symbolism and what its destruction was meant to achieve.

She quoted Heinrich Heine’s play, Almansor: “Where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people.”
Libraries and archives have been targets for centuries, and the reason is always the same: it’s about taking away knowledge and stifling free thinking.

Libraries are, and have always been, symbols of freedom – the freedom to think and learn and find documents and books to debate and discuss.

Throughout history, when authoritarians take power and seek to control thought and behaviour, they either lock up libraries or destroy the manuscripts and books inside them.

The Serbian forces who burned the Sarajevo library were seeking to obliterate evidence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s existence as a successful multicultural and multi-ethnic state. The documents they burned told a different history from the one that the army leaders wanted to portray.

Omar Mohammed, who reported as Mosul Eye on the Isis occupation of his city in Iraq, risked his life to blog anonymously about the occupiers’ wish to destroy books as well as to execute people as they sought to repress the population.

Mohammed told Index that it was not just the university library that was destroyed in Mosul, but it was the one that was reported on the most.

Many other libraries, even private collections, were wiped out. “The only possible reason is because knowledge is power,” he said. “Once you prevent people from accessing knowledge then you will have full control over them.”

Like many other scholars who have delved into the history of libraries, Mohammed understands that it is not about the buildings themselves.

“They don’t want people to have this access because they know if people write the history, it will be completely different from the one they wanted it to be,” he said.

Targeting libraries sends out a powerful message to scholars, historians and scientists, he added.

“When they see that such people are able to totally target the libraries, that they are literally able to destroy everything, it’s a manifestation of brutality.”

Today, Richard Ovenden, the most senior librarian at the Bodleian libraries at the University of Oxford, is worried about libraries in Turkey being closed under pressure from the government of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to some sources, at least 188 libraries were closed there between 2002 and 2020.

Ovenden’s book, Burning the Books, looks at the history of the intentional destruction of knowledge. He was recently contacted by a Turkish student, who said: “I’ve just read your book and I want you to know how bad it is in Turkey, because libraries are being destroyed. And all the things that you write about are true in Turkey today.”

Ovenden said: “There is an absolutely authoritarian control over knowledge. Attacks on knowledge are being exercised by the authoritarian leader of Turkey right now. It is the ability for the population to generate their own ideas and to come up with their own thoughts that some governments, some authoritarian powers, some dictators and rulers do not like.”

When dictatorships seek to establish that certain minorities don’t exist, or haven’t lived somewhere, getting rid of the documentary evidence is very convenient.

Archives that establish the existence of Uighurs in China and Muslims in parts of India also look like targets.
Ovenden feels that what is fantastically important about libraries is that they “preserve the past thoughts and ideas of human beings so they’re parts of that evidence base”.

He added: “They’re also disseminating institutions [where] you can borrow the books, you can come and take those ideas away and write other books about them, or pamphlets, or newspaper articles, or whatever it is.”
Governments around the world are failing to protect libraries as a resource, sometimes by withdrawing or drastically reducing funding.

In the UK, almost 800 libraries closed between 2010 and 2019, and a major campaign kicked off in Australia this year to save the national archives.

Michelle Arrow, professor of history at Macquarie University in Sydney, argued in April that if funding cuts were not reversed, irreplaceable audio-visual collections would fall apart. After a public campaign, the national government has delivered some extra funding, but this has not solved all the archives’ problems.

She told Index that with a reduction in staff of almost 25% since 2013, more staff would be needed to deal with the large backlog of requests to view archived material.

She said the archives contained “unique records, and they touch almost every Australian: it is a democratic archive, a collection of ordinary people’s records, rather than famous or renowned Australians”.

While some countries are seeing numerous library closures due to financial or other threats, there are new defenders coming to light. In the coastal city of Santa Cruz in California, there’s a massive investment in upgrades to current libraries, and new ones are opening over the next two years.

Santa Cruz mayor Donna Meyers told Index: “In California, we just tend to believe in public institutions. We believe that public education, public libraries, all of that, lead to a better community, lead to a more informed society.”

Santa Cruz residents passed a special tax – by 78% of the vote – to pay for investment in the libraries which, Meyers says, is a sign of how committed the community is to libraries being around for future generations.
Back in Sarajevo, Mijatović can see the new library that rose from the ashes of the Vijecnica from her terrace.
She said: “One hopes that the soul and the people of Sarajevo will recover and that new generations will hopefully enjoy this magnificent symbol of Sarajevo and, more importantly, live in peace.”

Library destruction in recent history

1914: German troops destroy the library of the Catholic University of Louvain

1939: The Great Talmudic Library in Lublin is destroyed by the Nazis

1966-76: Chairman Mao destroys libraries across China as part of the Cultural Revolution

1976-79: The Khmer Rouge deliberately destroy libraries across Cambodia, including the Phnom Penh national library

2013: Islamic troops set fire to the library in Timbuktu, Mali


What you missed from Banned Books Week 2020

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Books have long been objects of contention, criticised for spreading ideas which go against the status quo. They are removed from libraries and bookshops, burned, banned and vandalised while writers are attacked, threatened, imprisoned. These actions are nothing new, yet the importance of preserving our freedom to read is more important now than ever. 

Freedom to read is at the centre of Banned Books Week, an initiative which has sought to challenge censorship on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing together literary communities – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

The initiative was launched in the USA in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools. Since then, it has sought to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Each year sees an exciting strand of events, readings list, games and activities designed to get people thinking about books that have been banned throughout history, and are still causing offense today. 

As the 2020 Banned Books Week comes to a close, we have a chance to reflect on the impact the initiative has had over the past 38 years, and consider the work we still need to do to ensure everyone is free to read. 

Censoring literature is nothing new. It has a long and dark history and has been exercised by governments, political parties and religious groups for centuries. Book burning, which has been recorded as early as the 7th century BCE, and proliferated under the Nazi party in Germany in 1933, is emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence some aspect of prevailing culture. 

Today’s methods of censorship remain prevalent yet differ in style. Political leaders use legal methods to silence or prohibit writing which paints themselves and their parties in an unpleasant light – techniques not so different to the vexatious lawsuits used to silence journalists. Academic textbooks are rewritten to paint recent historical events in a very different light, and a favourite illustrated bear has long been banned to protect the ego of other fragile leaders. 

As well as these more blatant signs of government censorship, literature is still challenged today. Some of the most canonical works of the 20th century have famously been challenged – including The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which this year sees the 60th anniversary of its uncensored publication in the UK. But it is children’s books that cause a particular stir, such as And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell which tells the true story of two male penguins who create a family together and was subsequently banned in US schools and libraries for depicting same-sex marriage and adoption. 

While this year’s Banned Books Week took a different shape from previous years, we had the pleasure of hearing a number of writers speak about their experiences of being silenced, censored or simply refused a platform. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resultant global Black Lives Matter protests, it has been clearer than ever before that the voices of some are prioritised to the exclusion of others. 

In an online session on 29 September, Urvashi Butalia spoke to poet Rachel Long, and authors Elif Shafak and Jacqueline Woodson about what ‘freedom’ means in the culture of traditional publishing, and how writers today can change the future of literature. During the event, Shafak defended freedom of speech and spoke about her experience of seeing her works of fiction brought into the courtroom – “it was very surreal to me. Art needs freedom, even though it may be harmful in the eyes of authorities.” 

Shafak’s comments harked back to those made by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship. At the event, Morrison spoke of her novel Song of Solomon being banned at a prison after the warden expressed fear that it might stir the incarcerated to riot. An acoustical lapse led Morrison to speculate as to whether the real fear was of the inmates incitement to “riot” or “write” – asking, which would ultimately be the most dangerous?

While authorities and governments fear literary works that are seen to challenge them, we are reminded this Banned Books Week of the importance of free artistic expression and of literature’s power to challenge even the most powerful, oppressive forces. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#BannedBooksWeek2016: Banned books webinar


What’s it like to be an author of a banned or challenged book? How can librarians support authors who find themselves in this situation? To mark Banned Books Week, Vicky Baker, deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine, will chair an online discussion with three authors on 29 September, followed by a Q&A.

It is free to join, although attendees must register in advance.

The contributors are:

  • Christine Baldacchino, author of Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a children’s book about a boy who likes to wear a dress, which “highly concerned” some parents when it was read in US schools.
  • Wendy Doniger, a professor of religious history at the University of Chicago and author of numerous academic works. Her 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History was recalled, and destroyed, by the publisher Penguin India in 2014, after a lawsuit was filed, claiming the work denigrated Hinduism
  • Jessica Herthel, a graduate of Harvard Law School, who co-wrote the children’s picture book I Am Jazz, with Jazz Jennings, a transgender activist and YouTube/television star. In 2015, an elementary school in Wisconsin cancelled a reading of the book after a group threatened to sue.

The webinar has been arranged by Sage Publications, in conjunction with the American Library Association.

When: Thursday 29 September, 4pm GMT / 11 EST
Where: Online
Tickets: Free, registration required.

Rachael Jolley: Threats to reaching knowledge: why libraries play a vital role

The winter 2015 issue of Index on Censorship magazine focuses on taboos and the breaking down of social barriers. Cover image by Ben Jennings.

Rachael Jolley, editor of Index on Censorship magazine, in a speech to the §2 – Libraries and Democracy conference in Umea, Sweden.

When I was nine, ten and eleven, my mother, my brother and I had a weekly ritual of driving to the local library, a flat modern building with big glass windows. We’d spend a quiet hour wandering up and down its carpeted corridors, picking out two or three plastic-covered books to take home to read.

All sorts of people found stories, history and biographies within their reach.

I have measured out my life in library books: from weekly visits to Bristol libraries, to school in Pittsburgh – a city which pays tribute to the greatest library supporter of them all Andrew Carnegie – to further study at the great Colindale newspaper archive library, and perhaps the most exciting celebrity library spot, standing next to the poet and librarian Philip Larkin in the neighbourhood butchers in Hull.

US poet laureate Rita Dove believes that libraries provide: “A window into the soul and a door into the world.” There are two types of freedom captured in that thought: The freedom to think, and the freedom to find out about others.

Books, magazines and newspapers are a door into the world and that’s why over centuries governments have tried to stop them being opened.

When that door opens on to the world, who knows what people might think or do? That door is not open to everyone now, or in the past. And when it comes to the freedom to express oneself: to write, draw, paint, act or protest then restrictions have often been levied by governments and other powerful bodies to stop the wider public being allowed those too.

Over the centuries, often, books were only made available to some. Sometimes they were written in a language that only a tiny group of people knew. When paper was expensive, books were for the few, not the many. In times gone by education was also expensive (and it still is in many places); those who were allowed to learn reading and writing were once in the minority.

That’s why public libraries, open to all and funded from the public purse, are so important. Their existence helped the many get access to what the few had held close to their chests; information, literature, inspiration.

US businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was one of the world’s most enthusiastic endowers of libraries. He helped fund more than 2,000 libraries around the United States plus hundreds more in the UK and beyond, because when he was a poor teenager, a wealthy man, Colonel James Anderson, opened up his private library of 400 books to Andrew and other working boys on Saturday nights, and this, Carnegie believed, made a huge difference to his life chances, and his ability to rise from poor, struggling beginnings to be a successful and wealthy steel magnate.

Carnegie believed in libraries’ power to do good. To open people’s minds. To help build knowledge. To help the ordinary person be introduced to ideas that might never otherwise be seen.

Of course, the history of libraries is much older than Carnegie’s time, stretching back to the Romans, Greeks, Chinese and Islamic libraries, where archives of important documents were kept.

Libraries hold history; documents that tell us what was bought and sold in ancient Greece; or how a Roman senator spoke. They inform us about the reality of other times, and allow us to learn from that past.

That’s why conquering armies have looked to destroy libraries and museums. Part of imposing a new present on a population is sometimes about re-writing the past. From the Library at Alexandria, to the Mosque library at Chinguetti to the Roman library on the Palatine Hill. If documents had not been preserved, we would know far less. We can do more than guess what might have happened, we can actually KNOW details, because records are still available.

In the 21st century libraries are under threat from many directions. As governments and local councils cut public spending, libraries in many western countries, including in the United Kingdom, are being closed down. Does that point to a lack of need or desire for such things? Have libraries become redundant?

In this new age of enlightenment is our thirst for knowledge less desperate than in previous generations or is our thirst quenched by easy access to hundreds of television channels and the internet? Indeed, with electronically accessible information free to anyone with a computer, is the internet the ultimate library, rendering its brick and glass-built equivalents redundant, in the same way the printing press marginalised the illuminated manuscript?

We in Europe are more free than previous generations have ever been to learn, find and understand. With our zillions of instant access points for information and discussion, we can look at Facebook, Twitter and thousands of ideas online in the twitch of mouse click after all. But does that access bring more understanding or deeper knowledge? And what is the future role then of a library?

Librarians are much needed as valuable guides: to help students and other readers to learn techniques to sift information, question its validity and measure its importance. To understand what to trust and what to question; and that all information is not equal. Students need to be able to weigh up different sources of research. The University of California Library System saw a 54% decline in circulation between 1991 to 2001 of 8,377,000 books to 3,832,000. It is shocking that some students are failing themselves by not using a broad range of books, and journals that are free from their university libraries to widen and deepen their understanding.

Both libraries and newspapers in their analogue form gave us the opportunity to stumble over ideas that we might not have otherwise encountered. Over there, on that page opposite the one we are reading in a newspaper, is an article about Chilean architecture that we knew nothing about it, but suddenly find a spark of interest in, and over there on the library shelf next to Agatha Christie, is Henning Mankell, a new author to us, and one that suddenly sounds like one we might like to read. And then off we go on a new winding track towards knowledge; one that we didn’t even know we wanted to explore. But that analogue world of stumbled-upon exploration is closing down. We have to make sure that we still have the equipment to carry on stumbling down new avenues and finding out about new writers, and history that we never knew we would care about.

Technology tends to remove the “stumbling upon”, by taking us down straight lines. Instead it prompts us to read or consume more of the same. Technology learns what we like, but it doesn’t know and cannot anticipate what might fascinate us in a chance, a random, encounter. In a world where we remove the unexpected then we miss out on expanding our knowledge. Something that libraries have always offered. The present is all too easily an echo chamber of social media where we follow only the people we agree with, and where we fail to engage with the arguments of those with whom we disagree. Is the echo chamber being enhanced by the linear nature of the digital library, the digital bookstore and the digital newspaper? AND if we follow only those that we like and agree with, do we lull ourselves into believing that those are the only opinions and beliefs out there. And we are so unused to disagreement that we want to close it down. We are somehow afraid to have it in the same room as us. Somehow we seem to be stumbling on towards a world where disagreement is frowned upon, and not embraced as a way of finding what is out there.

This is just one challenge to freedom of expression and thought. There are others.

Recently at Index on Censorship, we heard from Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman, a long-time supporter and writer for us…. that his play, Death and the Maiden, was being banned by a school in New Jersey because some parents didn’t like the language contained in it. In other words it offended or upset somebody. Meanwhile Judy Blume’s books about the realities of teenage life, including swearing and teenage pregnancy, gets her banned from US libraries and schools.

But isn’t fiction, theatre and art about connecting with the real, isn’t it about challenging people to think, and to be provoked?

When a film has been banned from our cinemas or a book banned from distribution has it meant no one is keen to read it? In fact the opposite is usually true, people flock to find out what it is or to watch the film wherever they can. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange and DH Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers found new audiences because they were banned. Monty Python’s controversial film Life of Brian was once marketed here in Sweden as the film so funny, it was banned in Norway!! (As you can imagine it did very well here in Sweden.)

Increasingly there are loud voices saying that we shouldn’t think about the unpleasant bits in the world, that we should ignore the difficult or traumatic because it is too complicated, or too ugly to have in the room. In a special editorial published at the time of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the South African Mail and Guardian said; “The goals of terrorism, if we are to dignify utter insanity with aims, are fear and polarisation.” If we live in a society where we think we are not allowed to speak about subjects; where they are considered too controversial, where appearing on a platform with someone is somehow seen as a tacit nod to agreeing with them, are giving into those goals?

So what can those living in Europe do to enhance or defend freedom of expression and what are the role of libraries? Firstly, we should never stop learning about our history. Remember periods where freedoms of expression, of thought, of living in a non traditional way, or practising a religion that was not state sanctioned, were not laid out as European rights as they are today. From witch trials, to the Edict of Nantes, to social stigma of unmarried women, to children abused by adults. There are moments in every family’s history, when someone had a desperate need for some secret, some taboo, some injustice to be talked about. To be put under the public spotlight.

Given that historical, but personal, reflection, perhaps each of us can have a clearer understanding of why freedom of expression as a right is something worth defending today.

Freedom of expression has always had a role in challenging injustice and persecution. Some argue that without freedom of expression we would not have other freedoms. Freedom of expression also includes offering groups that have historically been ostracised or sidelined or ignored — a chance to put their views, to be part of the wider debate, to be chosen to join a television chat show. Europe is a diverse society, all those voices should be heard.

Another point about enhancing freedom of expression in Europe, and outside, is that a lively and vigorous and diverse media is extremely important. So we should fight against control of the media by a single corporation, or by increased government influence. We need newspapers, and broadcasters, that cover what is happening, and don’t ignore stories because someone would rather those stories were not covered.

And another role for libraries of the future is as debate houses – a living room – at the centre of communities where people of different backgrounds come together to hear and discuss issues at the heart of our societies. And to meet others in their community. These neutral spaces are increasingly needed.

The value of passionate argument is often valued less than it should be. Where debates or arguments are driven underground, those who are not allowed to speak somehow obtain a glamour, a modern martydom. We must allow dissent and argument. We must let people whose ideas we abhor speak. Freedom of speech for those we like and agree with is no freedom at all.

There are those that dismiss freedom of speech as an indulgence defended by the indulged or the middle class or the left wing or the right wing or some other group that they would like not to hear from. However throughout history, freedom of speech and thought and debate has been used by the less powerful to challenge the powerful. Governments, state institutions, religious institutions. And to argue for change. That is not an indulgence.

And if you believe someone else’s arguments are ill founded, incorrect or malicious, then arguing a different point of view in a public place, a library, or a university hall, is much more powerful, than saying you are not allowed to say those things because we don’t like or disagree with them. To make those arguments, to understand what is happening we need to be able to access knowledge, libraries must continue to be community spaces where people can delve for that research and find out about the world, and themselves.

Libraries and those who support them have often been defenders of the right to knowledge. Because at the heart of any library is the idea of a freedom to think and discover.

We should remember that reading something never killed anyone. Watching a play didn’t either. If you find something that you disagree with, even disagree strongly, it is not the same as a dagger through your heart, as someone told me it was last summer in Italy.

As Turkish writer Elif Shafak said recently the response to a cartoon is another cartoon, the response to a play is another play. We are and can be prepared to listen, read or watch things that we disagree with. Listen to the argument; argue back with your own. Consider the evidence. The point of speech is to arrive at truth, and no one should be offended by that.