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Giving Compass' Take:
• Lorraine Boissoneault shares the historical and modern importance of book burning and information control by those in power to quash potential challenges to their rule.
• How can funders work to ensure that information is not lost through either malicious or unfortunate events? How does the internet present new opportunities to share and quash information?
• Learn how the Trump administration has changed government climate information.
Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war. In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire. According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.”
But for Rebecca Knuth, author of Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” Knuth says.
According to Knuth, the motives behind book burning changed after the printing press helped bring about the Enlightenment era—though burning through the collateral damage of war continued to arise (just consider the destruction of the U.S. Library of Congress during the War of 1812 or all the libraries destroyed across Europe during World War II). People saw knowledge as a way to change themselves, and the world, and so it became a far more dangerous commodity, no longer controlled exclusively by the elite. What better way to reshape the balance of power and send a message at the same time than by burning books?
The unifying factor between all types of purposeful book-burners in the 20th century, Knuth says, is that the perpetrators feel like victims, even if they’re the ones in power.
Technology has undoubtedly changed the way we share and save information, but Knuth argues that the core motivations for book burning, in whatever form the act takes, remain the same: prioritizing one type of information over another.
Read the full article about burning books by Lorraine Boissoneault at Smithsonian Magazine.