Throughout history, and in contemporary society, Libraries have always been depositories of society’s ideas. They are a beacon of democracy and social justice, providing equality for all people to access information. It is not surprising then, that many libraries have been deliberately destroyed as a form of ‘cultural cleansing’ – in an attempt by particular civilizations to erase the traditions and beliefs of others. Some of these violent acts are quite infamous, such as the multiple attacks and burning of manuscripts at the Library of Alexandria between 48 BC and AD 391.This practice however, is not limited to ancient times, it is a common occurrence in war affected nations and is still happening today. Book burning is an all too common means of oppression, and no culture has been immune. Some well known perpetrators include Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge and ISIS. A very sad, and not even comprehensive, list of destroyed libraries shows the extent of this damage across the world. The BBC News Magazine (and podcast) series Museum of Lost Objects “traces the stories of 10 antiquities or ancient sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria.” Another recent example in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal describes sacred Islamic manuscripts in Mali at risk of destruction, and the people (and Librarians!) who went to great lengths to save them.
However, with new technologies, come new opportunities for preserving and saving these artefacts and cultures. These same Mali manuscripts are in the process of being digitised with the help of a wide range of international governments and partner organisations. The manuscripts role in peaceful conflict resolution has also been immortalised in a documentary film. The lost monuments from Syria and Iraq are also being ‘rebuilt’; “two archaeology graduate students [have] launched Project Mosul, a website that solicits photographs of antiquities and uses 3-D modelling software to create a virtual record of what was lost in the attack.” 3-D printed miniature versions can be made, and virtual reality headsets also allow people to view digital reconstructions of destroyed artefacts. You can read more about these and other preservation projects in the Smithsonian Magazine and in The Conversation. Another great example is the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, an open access “digital archive of endangered literature in Australian Indigenous languages of the Northern Territory”, containing hundreds of books spanning over 25 languages. You can read about the development of this project on the Global Voices website.
Whether it is manuscripts, physical artefacts or languages, the attempted destruction of these things has brought the global community together in an effort to digitally preserve and share them. As Herbert Maschner (2016) so eloquently puts it his article in The Conversation:
“The attempts to destroy some of the world’s heritage have had quite the opposite effect…Now any student, scholar or interested individual has access to some of the most important historical and archaeological specimens, buildings and cities in the world. These efforts bring our global cultural heritage to everyone, while helping to ensure the preservation of our heritage in an increasingly hostile world.”
– Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.