Lost memories: Libraries and books destroyed in the 20th century (and today)

"It would take a very long time to compile a list of all the libraries and archives destroyed or seriously damaged by acts of war, bombardment and fire, whether deliberate or accidental, writes Abdelaziz Abid of UNESCO in the introduction to a 1996 report called “Lost Memory: Libraries and Archives Destroyed in the 20th Century."

The report, put together by Hans van der Hoeven and Joan van Albada, covers all forms of potential catastrophe facing libraries. Environmental damage is one type, which can be anything from water, fires, gas, heat and dust and “bookbinders,” they quote the bibliographer William Blades in his 1880 book called “The Enemies of Books.”

Lost Memory spends a great deal of time documenting the real enemy: those who hate books. These people often rear their head during wartime. One issue is the destruction of buildings, the collateral damage of two armies fighting. Book collections also fall victim to the purposeful destruction of manuscripts during the political fallout that begins after the fighting ends.

Monday, September 1 marked the75th anniversary of the start of World War II, which seems as good as time as any to remember the loss of libraries and archives. We must remember the past, of course. But the destruction of memory institutions are still taking place today.

Abid said that the two World Wars -- fought in 1914 - 1918 and 1939 - 1945 -- caused “considerable loses” to libraries and archives, especially in France, Germany, Italy and Poland.

A few examples:

During World War I, the German army invaded Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium and subsequently destroyed the Library of the University of Louvain. "Within a few hours over 300,000 books as well as many precious manuscripts and incunabula were all reduced to ashes," van der Hoeven writes.

The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained independence from Russia in 1918. In 1940, due to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Soviet troops entered the country, and according to van der Hoeven, "cleansed" objectionable texts from libraries and bookstores. Nazi Germany conquered these countries in 1941 after going back on the non-aggression pact. The Soviets then reconquered Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1944-45.

China's libraries also had a difficult history during the 20th century.

During the Sino-Japanese war, which began in 1937, "hundreds of thousands" of books were lost. The Communist takeover, ending in 1949, lead to the purging and destruction of “reactionary, obscene and absurd” books and publications. “This, in its turn, proved only the prelude to the wholesale destruction of books during the Cultural Revolution of the sixties,” van der Hoeven writes.

Van der Hoeven himself says he could only provide a rough estimate of manuscripts and books destroyed during the 20th century. He constructed the research through database searches and other holdings, but admits the list more heavily weights Western libraries, whose losses may end up being more thoroughly documented by these sources.

Outside the number of volumes lost and buildings destroyed, one important question remains: What did we as humans lose?

Books hold memories. In many countries, history and cultural heritage is preserved in books and other written communications.

From van der Hoeven:

Other than our individual memories, they span the generations and the centuries. Whether written on vellum, paper or palm leaves, they preserve knowledge that man has gathered over the ages. Much has been destroyed or has vanished without trace.