Librarians as Cultural Warriors & Protectors

Book Review, Censorship, International issues, Libraries and Data, Professional Ethics

By: Lisa Hoover

Over the holiday break (which already seems so long ago!), I spent a lot of my time reading, and one of the highlights of my reading binge was Rebecca Knuth’s book Libricide: The Regime Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the 20th Century, which reminded me forcefully that intellectual freedom is not just an abstract concept.

In the book, Knuth lays out her argument that “an extremist ideology, when promulgated fanatically by leaders with unbounded political power, poses a significant threat to the preservation of the world’s written heritage.” In other words, when authoritarian ideologues come to power, they threaten not only their citizens, but also their cultural heritage – at a loss to not only their country, but the world as a whole – including, in some cases, budding library consortia.

Knuth begins with a discussion of ethnocide and the history of libraries, then sets out her argument for a phenomena she calls “libricide.” She then supports her argument with case studies from Nazi Germany, Serbia, Iraq invading Kuwait, China during the Cultural Revolution, and Tibet.

Thousands of books smoulder in a huge bonfire as Germans give the Nazi salute during the wave of book-burnings that spread throughout Germany. International News Photos. From the National Archives. In each case study Knuth describes the destruction of books and libraries and the rationale for it. She argues that in each case, the destruction is not an accident – it is part of a calculated effort to destroy not only a people, but the culture of that people. For example, she argues that once the evidence is reviewed, it is “evident that the real target of Nazism was the very foundation of Western culture and humanity itself.”

Knuth argues that in many cases, such destruction is intended to remove any evidence that the suppressed group existed, to suppress dissent, and/or to remove anything that would contradict the dominant ideology and the regime’s justification for suppressing (or in some cases killing) members of the group.


Created by me, reads "My father had spent every penny on his books. They were his life. After the bonfire, I could tell that something had happened to his mind." From Knuth, Libricide: The Regime Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the 20th Century.


Knuth uses poignant personal examples to drive home the impact such actions can have, such as the description by a daughter of her father’s pro-active self-censorship due to fear:

“He had lit a fire in the big cement sink, and was hurling his books into the flames. This was the first time in my life I had seen him weeping. It was agonized, broken and wild, the weeping of a man not used to shedding tears. Every now and then, in fits of violent sobs, he stamped his feet on the floor and banged his head against the wall … I did not know what to say. He did not utter a word either. My father had spent every penny on his books. They were his life. After the bonfire, I could tell that something had happened to his mind.” (As quoted from Chang, 1991 in Knuth, 2003)

Ganden Monastery, one of the largest monasteries in Tibet, was home to more than 5000 monks before 1959. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and now houses only around 500 monks. From such regimes also curtail education and literacy. Knuth discusses the appalling lack of literacy in Tibet following suppression by China, and the focus on the intellectual population during Cambodia’s genocide in the 1970s: “While there was wholesale destruction of religious shrines, temples and schools, and thus of religious texts, it wasn’t necessary to destroy all the books and libraries. When possessing reading skills is punishable by death, printed materials become irrelevant.” (emphasis added)

What interested me most was Knuth’s discussion of the role librarians play in all of this. Naturally, many librarians (and other curators of cultural content) resist the incoming regime by trying to hide or protect books, sometimes at great personal cost. Others resign to avoid taking part in the destruction and suppression. In some cases, we are still finding such protected materials, as in the recent discovery of a large collection of Yiddish works hidden from the Nazis.

However, sadly, some librarians take part in such censorship, either due to fear of the regime or genuine ideological belief. Knuth describes librarians helping to target books for removal or destruction, following the regime’s collection development policies, and helping to create “blacklists” of undesirable materials and “whitelists” of materials favorable to the regime – sometimes even going beyond the censorship required by the government.

Obviously this says a great deal about the power of the written word. It tells us not only that books and libraries have power to promote free thinking, but that authoritarians fear that power. Not only do they destroy the materials that might reflect negatively on their rule, but they also actively co-opt libraries and other intellectual centers to their cause. Libraries and other repositories are filled with materials that support the state ideology. Research and scholarship are twisted to support the regime’s worldview.

Likewise, it says a great deal about the importance of librarians, library paraprofessionals, museum curators, archivists, educators, and anyone else involved in the protection and promotion of cultural heritage and protection of intellectual freedom. Knuth’s book demonstrates that librarians can be active participants in protecting cultural history, or they can be twisted to add legitimacy to the regime’s propaganda.

What remains of the historic Temple of Bel, dating back to 32AD. Joseph Eid, Getty Images. From The Independent. Sadly, intentional destruction of cultural heritage is not limited to history. In 2016 ISIS destroyed ancient artifacts in northern Iraq as they fled toward Mosul: “’The ruins have vanished. History that went back thousands of years was finished off in one night. Fifty years of effort to protect these ruins went in vain,’ local Hassan Mahmoud told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.”

Similar damage has occurred in Syria, also at the hands of ISIS, which Smithsonian Magazine writer James Harkin referred to as “cultural genocide” in 2016. (Fortunately, Harkin’s article describes major efforts to protect what is left of the Syrian artifacts.) In the case of ISIS, the destruction is also intended to “scandalize” and offend those who value these historical artifacts. Not unlike the rationale behind many acts of terrorism, right?

Librarians can be warriors protecting intellectual freedom, but in times of great adversity they have also used their expertise to support censorship. This is one of many reasons why a professional norm that strongly supports intellectual freedom and the right to read is so important, and why a vigorous defense of those values is critical. So, while it might seem easiest to cave to “small” attempts at censorship, history tells us that censorship can lead to so many other evils. As Heinrich Hiene said, “wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”


Lisa HooverLisa Hoover is a Public Services librarian at Clarkson University and an adjunct professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about First Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules and Pandora and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.


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