Bibliophiles Notes: Disturbing Library Disasters

by Bruce Johnson,

Even ardent anti-bibliophiles can still love and appreciate what libraries contribute to the human race. They peacefully preserve the integrity of documents with academic, creative, technical, scientific, and historical significance, without which mankind could never move forward. So losing any of them in horrible ways – whether through natural or other disasters – means leaving a nasty scar across temporal and cultural divides. The following examples in particular serve as some of the most heart-wrenching examples, not to mention reminds us of just how fragile information can really be.

  1. Library of Alexandria

    Nobody knows for certain who burned the Library of Alexandria (or even when, exactly), with theories generally ranging from Julius Caesar in 48 BCE to Rashidun invasion around 642 CE. The sheer volume of original works lost forever stands as the most disheartening, disturbing facet here. Either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II conceived of the epic archive and center of intellectual innovation, which collected ancient literature, philosophy, science, histories, and more on thousands of papyrus scrolls; how many remains (and likely will remain) a complete mystery. One of the Library of Alexandria’s most significant accomplishments was compiling works from far beyond Egypt itself, providing a home for Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and other ancient texts; Homer especially piqued inhabitants’ interest. Its loss established a massive blind spot for future historians, thinkers, and developers looking to the past for information that might benefit the future.

  2. Library of Nalanda

    Bihar, India’s Nalanda University stands as one of the most magnificent intellectual communities ever established, with hundreds of thousands of Buddhist and Hindu texts available in the Dharma Gunj (also known as the Dharmaganja). Its library spanned three buildings, the tallest of which hit about nine stories, and attracted a global roster of the greatest scholars and holy men at the time. So when Turkish invaders ravaged the entire university in 1193 CE, witnesses say the fires blazed for months on end – but that’s not the saddest kernel of the story. Historians attribute the loss of scientific and religious texts alike to the general decline of productivity on the South Asian subcontinent for the remainder of the ancient period.

  3. Public Record Office

    In 1922, a Dublin bombing resulted in the almost complete devastation of the Irish National Archives’ Public Record Office. Seeing as how the incident occurred during the Civil War, much of the suspicion falls on the Irish Republican Army, who continues denying any involvement. A sad irony, considering the battles were all about preserving the dignity and culture of a forcibly overtaken nation. Important historical records and documents dating all the way back to the 13th century wound up completely obliterated, meaning a significant chunk of the then-ravaged nation’s past no longer exists – in written form, anyways. Now, just about the only available texts involve 19th and 20th century happenings.

  4. Warsaw, Poland during Nazi occupation

    Warsaw lost an estimated 70% to 80% of its library holdings during the Ghetto Uprising, when Nazi invaders attempted to quell Jewish revolutionaries rightfully protesting the Holocaust. Germans torched almost every shred of Polish culture they could with the hopes of perpetuating further suppression, with some of the most important literary losses being the Central Military Library and Zaluski Library – not to mention the private holdings of the Krasinski, Zamoyski, and Przezdziecki families. Hundreds of thousands of manuscripts were lost forever, along with priceless works of art, maps, and other valuables establishing a proud Polish identity and history.

  5. Chinese university libraries, during WWII

    While the Nazi regime jackbooted its reign of ignorance and torment across Europe, their Japanese allies went about burning Chinese universities and libraries in an attempt to subvert the culture. Over a million books (not to mention other unique and integral library and academic holdings) in total were lost, and the National University of Hunan, University Nan-k’ai T’ien-chin, University of Kuang Hua Shanghai, University Ta Hsia, Institute of Technology of He-pei T’ien-chin, Agricultural College of He-pei Pao-ting and Medical College of He-pei Pao-ting all ended up entirely gone. China’s massive loss of its scholastic, cultural, and historical heritage left a massive wound, but the medical library especially stands as a particularly tragic casualty. Imagine the healthcare developments that could’ve spiraled out of its holdings and findings; healing lives instead of burning them down.

  6. Iraq National Library and Archive

    Slowly and steadily, the Iraq National Library and Archive has been piecing itself back together under the watch of director Saad Eskander. April 2003 saw the Baghdad-based building burned and looted, with fingers pointing at everyone from bandits to Kurdish revolutionaries to American troops to neighboring nations to Saddam Hussein’s men – maybe even some combination. Many of its invaluable manuscripts dated all the way back to the Ottoman, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Assyrian empires, and a plethora of artifacts disappeared or died alongside them. Quite a devastating event for a nation already splintered, scattered, and watching its past explode because of multiple wars and skirmishes.

  7. 2004 Earthquake in the Indian Ocean

    An entire Wikipedia page exists chronicling the heart-breakingly nauseating destruction suffered by nations impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunamis, amongst the deadliest in history. Public, private, academic, museum, and school libraries and archives across India, The Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, and other affected regions disappeared completely, with millions (if not tens or hundreds of millions) of priceless texts (not to mention other items) gone forever. But the loss of history and culture still stands as far less tragic to the loss of lives trapped in the buildings as Mother Nature crumbled. In these institutions alone, hundreds of teachers, librarians, students, patrons, and staff died or remain missing to this day, including Bachitar Azis, director of the Aceh Provincial Library in Indonesia. Sri Lanka also converted some of its remaining libraries into refugee camps.

  8. New Orleans Public Library

    When Hurricane Katrina wrecked America’s Gulf Coast in 2005, nearly every public library in its path sustained some form of damage, with some branches (like Martin Luther King in the Lower 9th Ward) completely destroyed. Temporary libraries eventually opened up to provide services with salvaged holdings, and the entire New Orleans Public Library System still finds itself recovering from the destruction, with some buildings finally back to regular hours in 2011. Tragically, 90% of the combined staff wound up losing their jobs in the months succeeding Katrina, only adding to the trauma of losing loved ones and homes.

Source: The Most Disturbing Library Disasters in History

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