Library Love: A Rough Timeline of Lost Libraries

Not everyone loves books. For centuries, despotic governments and rulers have feared the power of the written word and its influence on the masses; enough to destroy the most hallowed sanctuaries of bibliophiles across the globe—libraries. From Iraq to Los Angeles, countless libraries have been lost to war, fire, and “progress.” 


3000 BCE – 1197 CE

The earliest libraries appeared during the third millennium BCE in the Near East. It wasn't too long after that the first library sackings would follow, particularly in the Mesopotamian region. Raiders weren't always successful. In one case, a fire meant to destroy the library of Assyrian King Ashurbanipal in 612 BCE actually hardened and helped preserve the clay tablets. In 1980, archeologists were able to recover 2,000 clay tablets from an archive in Syria that suffered a similar fate; while the shelves had burned, the tablets fell to the floor and patiently waited a few thousand years.

The Library of Alexandria is probably what most often comes to mind when speaking of the destruction of libraries. Rather than the fiery death usually accorded it, however, some scholars believe that the Library of Alexandria fizzled out of existence by 639 CE due to budget cuts. Meanwhile in Bihar, India, the Buddhist library of Nalanda survived until an attack by Turkic invaders in 1197 CE. Before its demise, Nalanda attracted scholars from multiple continents and contained over nine million manuscripts.

Books are extremely valuable. Why else would anyone put so much effort into eradicating them?

Rebecca Knuth goes so far as to directly link libraries with the development of civilization in Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century: “The barbarism, illiteracy, and regression that characterized Roman culture after the fall of Rome contrasts sharply with the cultural richness of earlier societies like the Greeks, or even Roman culture at its peak.”

Middle Ages – 19th Century

Historically, religion has served as a double-edged sword when it comes to promoting and protecting literacy. Sometimes places of worship became custodians of the written word, while in other cases religion became the excuse for its destruction. As Christianity spread to Mesoamerica via Spanish explorers, a number of valuable libraries and manuscripts were lost. The Maya Codices and a renowned library in the city of Texcoco were among the carnage.

20th Century

Every now and then, libraries fall for reasons that have nothing to do with human motivations. The Imperial University Library in Tokyo, for instance, was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. You can see photos of what the library looked like before the quake on the University of Tokyo website. Approximately 700,000 volumes were lost.  

The number of books lost during World War II is almost beyond comprehension. Over two million volumes are estimated to have been removed and destroyed from Czech libraries alone, approximately half of the country's books according to some estimates. Poland lost somewhere near 16 million volumes when the Nazis invaded. Frankly, this could have easily become an entire article dedicated solely to libraries damaged during the 1940's.

Some libraries fared better than others, opting to rebuild from the damage sustained. The King's Library Gallery was collected by King George III and being housed in the East Wing of the British Museum when a bomb fell on the building in 1940. By George's death in 1820, the collection (which he hired two librarians to curate) was comprised of over 65,000 volumes. Although the bomb destroyed over thirty feet of bookshelves, only 304 volumes were damaged beyond repair in the blast.   

The worst library fire in US history occurred as the result of arson in 1986. It decimated Los Angeles Central Library, incinerating a large collection of Old West patents in a blaze that took down the third largest public library in the country. You can watch (oddly mesmerizing) footage of the fire here.

Today

Sadly, libraries are still being lost today. War in the Middle East has left a blight of scattered and charred books behind. An attack in early 2015 by ISIS on Mosul's central library resulted in the ruination of thousands of books and manuscripts, some dating back several hundred years. The early 2000's saw the fall of the National Library and State Archives of Iraq, institutions that held hundreds of years of history. Here, art historian Zainab Bahrani gives a fascinating account of how colleagues of hers protected Ottoman documents by using an old kitchen freezer in a bombed-out former club.


If there's one thing to be learned here, it's probably this: books are extremely valuable. Why else would anyone put so much effort into eradicating them?

Image of Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century
Author: Rebecca Knuth
Price: $17.21
Publisher: Praeger (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 296 pages
Image of Libraries in the Ancient World
Author: Lionel Casson
Price: $11.38
Publisher: Yale University Press (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 192 pages
Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a bibliophile and bookseller from the frigid North Shore of Massachusetts. A graduate of the journalism program at UMass Amherst, she spends her spare time blogging about books (of course), history, politics, and events in the Boston area. Occasionally, she spits out something resembling fiction, and has previously served as a contributor to Steampunk Magazine. She collects typewriters and old novels and laments the fact that her personal library has outgrown her apartment.

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Comments

Mark F Braun's picture
Mark F Braun November 17, 2015 - 9:12am

THANK YOU for posting this! You're right... frighteningly right.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tons of LGBT nonfiction so he can judge a literary contest November 18, 2015 - 9:32am

This is a terrific article! Libraries have played a huge role in my life. My idea of heaven is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills - day-by-day records of innumerable films' productions, stars' contracts, an enormous heap of treasures - only the heaven version would have a well-stocked bar.

I was once waiting in line at the bank when a distraught woman burst in through the front door and screamed, "They're burning the library at Alexandria! The barbarians!" and rushed back out onto the sidewalk. A typical day in New York City.