25 May, 2021 • • 47.1HistoryPolitics

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The Archive as Body, The Body as Archive

Caterina Domeneghini

Richard Ovenden
Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge under Attack
Harvard University Press
£23.95 (Hardcover)

Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge came out in September 2020. Its potential to connect and inspire people, however, was only realised a few months later, at an event at the British Museum online. On this occasion, Ovenden—the twenty-fifth director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford—found himself in conversation with the writer and artist Edmund de Waal. No better respondent could have been chosen: de Waal is creator of the ‘library of exile’, a temporary installation at the British Museum hosting more than 2,000 books—the majority of which are in translation—written by exiled authors. The artist has described his library as a ‘space to sit and read and be’. Its walls are inscribed with the names of the lost libraries in the world, and its volumes are now in the process of being donated to the University Library of Mosul, which was set alight by ISIS fighters in 2015. The story underlying de Waal’s project therefore complements the trajectory of Ovenden’s own work. Their conversation sheds light both on the gaps left by documents forever lost and the surviving volumes, while inviting the audience to reflect upon the intersecting histories of the core elements of Burning the Books: archives, memory and destruction.

The driving force for Ovenden’s research has been a desire to raise awareness of the importance of the preservation of knowledge for the wealth of communities, especially minority ones. Opening with a survey of Assurbanipal’s cuneiform library in Babylonia—a collection of clay documents that was partly born out of the political act of destroying the libraries of his enemy states—Burning the Books traces a history of ‘enforced sequestration of knowledge’ reaching out to our contemporary consciences. Its compelling account ends with the chance discovery and removal of the Baʿth party’s archive in Baghdad by the hands of American emissaries in 2005, whose failure to return the documents to the country of their genesis, Ovenden argues, prevented the Iraqis from ‘coming to terms with their own past’. Placing Derrida’s idea that ‘[t]here is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory’ at its core, Burning the Books is itself presented in the form of an archive within which recorded attempts to thwart or safeguard the dissemination of knowledge intertwine with forceful documentary eloquence, charting the both distant and recent histories of communities.

Ovenden issued his book at an inauspicious historical moment—one which coincides with the end of a political regime in the USA that specialised in the erasure of the past and in the replacement of facts with ‘alternative facts’. In a joint interview with Thomas Blanton, released on November 23rd—just a couple of weeks after the election polls came out—Ovenden addressed concerns around the Trump administration’s lack of record-keeping and the question of how that story fits into the long history of obstructing and destructing knowledge that his book so thoroughly recounts. His discouraging observation is that Trump’s efforts to manipulate the flow of information surrounding his businesses, and his reported tearing up documents from White House meetings, are just the tip of an iceberg that has gained in solidity throughout the twentieth century—most notably, through the destruction of records on the part of colonial European powers, after former colonies gained their independence. Ovenden urges us to understand both the refusal to hand over documents of the colonial administration to newly formed national archives in new countries and the attempt to obstruct history in order to hide misdemeanours, acts of corruption and racist behaviour as part of the same destructive practice.

This contemporaneity also emerges as a key strength of Burning the Books. It addresses the problems connected to what its author calls a ‘digital deluge’: the overflow of (mis)information that has now become so easily accessible on the Internet, and which makes the demand for more serious or thorough inquiry seem pointless or ridiculous to many. It is therefore imperative to have libraries and archives at our immediate disposal, as places where in-depth expertise is stored safely, where people can check out information themselves, and where they can learn more about their individual and collective histories. Ovenden’s hope is that we will resolve to support archives and conceive the preservation of knowledge as a fundamental element of our democracies, a tool of resistance and social advancement for communities under threat. He encourages governments to invest their funds in educational institutions, and to take the increasing shift in the documentation of everyday life, business and government to the digital world very seriously: ‘If we do not act now our successors in future generations will rue our inaction’, he writes towards the end of his work.

More fundamentally, Ovenden reminds us that his work is about people, about us, just as much as it is about books. The elimination of the mind is inseparable from the elimination of the body. ‘Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen’, the German poet Heinrich Heine, Jewish by birth, wrote in his play Almansor (1823). This chilling, prophetic statement served as a grim commentary on recent incidents that had taken place six years before at the Wartburg Festival in Thuringia, where hundreds of Protestant students and professors had gathered to arrange the book burning of a number of allegedly reactionary and ‘antinational’ authors, including Napoleon, Saul Ascher and August von Kotzebue. When books are burnt, Heine ominously stated, people will also be burnt: a quote that has become so famous as to warrant a place on the ‘Bibliotek’ memorial in the Bebelplatz square in Berlin, as well as the frontispiece of Ovenden’s own book.


A useful prism through which to read Ovenden’s emphasis on the preservation of knowledge and archives is the equation of archives with bodies encouraged by recent work in Queer and minority studies. In this work, scholars like Julietta Singh (No Archive Will Restore You, 2018) and Jamie A. Lee (Producing the Archival Body, 2020) have suggested that archives might be equated with bodies of knowledge—and conversely, bodies with archives. Thus, bodies are conceptualised as a repository of ideas, organic archives that record their own history. In an interview with Barbara Browning, Julietta Singh recalled the research of a university friend on how Argentine female prisoners managed to store and escape with subversive materials in their vaginal canals. This story, she declared, inspired her to think about bodies—especially female ones—and archives, or rather about the body as archive, an organism indispensable in the process of mediating between what stays inside and what gets outside, in the preservation and ultimately communication of knowledge to other bodies’ archives.

This anecdote shares some similarities with the story of the ‘Paper Brigade’ in the Vilna Ghetto which Ovenden recalls in his own book. As a response to the dreadful and systematic destruction of the volumes stored in the libraries of Vilna between March 1942 and September 1943—one of the many escalations of the events of May 1933—the  members of the Paper Brigade worked out strategies to save books. One was to read them to each other when the Germans were not there, sharing knowledge and then archiving it safely in their heads, where no guard was able to search. But they would also hide books and documents in their clothes and take them to the ghetto at the end of each working day. This was an extremely risky enterprise, for if Nazis found books on the workers, their bodies would be immediately violated: they would be stripped and beaten, sent to the ghetto prison or even the Lukishki prison in Vilna, and then to the execution site at Ponar, outside Vilna. Books and flesh are intimately bound together in this story, as the body turns into a material vehicle of knowledge, ferrying it both physically and metaphorically from one place to another—from outside the ghetto to inside the ghetto again, but also from oblivion to remembrance. The price that the members of the Brigade were prepared to pay in order to keep that awareness and knowledge alive was the loss of their very bodies, the exchange of a corpus for their own corpse.

The concept of the body archive as a site for exchanges helps illuminate other case studies within the book. For instance, Ovenden uses the Stasi archives in East Germany in his conversation with de Waal as an example of ‘how you can get it right with the preservation of knowledge’. The Stasi bureaucracy’s core mission was to gather information in order to prevent any potential endangerment of the party’s hold on power. One of its central tools in this endeavour was to use regular citizens as informants. As Dagmar Hovestädt, spokesperson of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records, Berlin, recounts, by 1989 about 180,000 of these ‘unofficial collaborators’ or IM (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter) were registered in the files. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, the people’s new engagement in the affairs of the state found an urgent call to action. By early November 1989, the Stasi administrators had begun to destroy the documents, which prompted East German citizens to occupy buildings and offices in order to stop the elimination of the files. The more smoke they saw coming out of chimneys, the more self-aware these citizens became.

At this point in the interview, Ovenden appropriately quotes from Orwell’s 1984: ‘If you clung to the truth even against the whole world you were not mad’. That is precisely what happened on January 15th, 1990: people ‘clung to the truth’ and pushed themselves onto the premises of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin. After forty years of being spied upon and living under the rules of the party, citizens categorically demanded access to the stored information. “To each their own file” was their slogan. The process of restoring to each person their own archival history became possible because of the Gauck Authority: an organisation set up after the fall of the Berlin Wall to administer the opening up of the archives in as controlled and as respectful a manner as possible. By 1994, Joachim Gauck, a former East German priest, had recruited 3,000 staff members who would be able to process millions of requests for access to the files, with the aid of a huge budget. To Ovenden, this represents an extraordinary moment of openness, one in which people were finally given a chance to come to terms with their own history, however discomforting that was. ‘You’re confronted with the fact that your friends, your family members were all informing on you’, he says to de Waal. This active openness was a way of confronting a difficult past, helpful for the Germans to move forward as a community, and instrumental in the process of unifying the country.

Ovenden contrasts this well-resourced, carefully-managed and sensitive moment of confrontation with what could have happened, but did not, in Baghdad in 2005. ‘Could Iraq have achieved similar levels of social progress that the opening up of archives—albeit mediated by the Gauck Authority—had enabled in the former East Germany?’, Ovenden asks in the book. We can only guess, although Ovenden’s inclinations are quite clear. What is at stake here is in part the possibility of revising one’s history, restoring a sense of nationhood and, ultimately, finding justice amidst the desolation of perpetrated fabrications. To access an archive can signify regaining control over oneself, becoming once again the writer of one’s own historical narrative.


Ovenden’s call to collective responsibility towards archives and libraries is, thus, a call to be responsible towards one another. It is essential to come to terms with such a responsibility now—all the more so when we realise that its roots are so ancient. Burning the Books reminds us that the destruction of the Alexandrian Library in 48 BCE was caused not primarily by fire, but by human neglect. Like many classicists today, Ovenden thinks that what really happened—in contrast with the mythical view of a building going up in flames and of all things being lost forever in one single incident—is that there was a series of minor fires that could have been checked had it not been for the marginal position and lack of funding in which the institution increasingly plunged, owing to the neglect of its royal administration. Ovenden’s tale is a cautionary one: he warns us against the ‘danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritisation and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge’. Towards the end of the conversation, de Waal himself outlines a fairly desolate picture of the current situation of libraries and archives in the UK: the last ten years has witnessed the loss of 773 of our public libraries, while those which are still in place are underfunded.

Not all hope is lost, however, as Ovenden himself reminds at the coda of the book. For instance, one of the inspiring phenomena that has paved its way in the last few years is that of so-called ‘activist archiving’—groups committed to the documentation of knowledge either by capturing and storing elsewhere data from websites that are most liable to be hacked (such as Palestinian ones), or by digitising information in vulnerable places, such as the ‘Endangered Archive’ Programme in Yemen. Similarly, Ovenden’s conversation with de Waal ends on the uplifting note of a comparison between the librarian and the ‘taper’ in Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote, which the author also includes in his book. In a letter, Jefferson compared the way ideas spread to the way people light candles from one another:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Other than providing a strikingly gentle contrast to the harsh image of flames burning books, Jefferson’s taper offers a beautiful metaphor of who the ideal librarian is to be—a guardian of the truth, an illuminator for society through the core act of preserving knowledge and sharing it as widely as possible.

This act of transmission and dissemination of intellectual power is one that occurs, quite crucially, not in a simply univocal, unidirectional or ‘straight’ way. Another of the achievements of queer theorising about the body as archive is that it imposes no strict or vertical norm of circulation: bodies are free to occupy different spaces and times, to extend themselves in the world through reorienting one’s relation to others. In the process, they get inextricably bound together. As Julietta Singh writes in No Archive Will Restore You, ‘we are not bounded, contained subjects, but ones filled up with foreign feelings and vibes that linger and circulate in space, that enter us as we move through our lives. We likewise leave traces of ourselves and our own affective states (which are never really just our own) behind us when we go’. The idea of the body as a porous, fruitful site of exchanges and a font of knowledge is one that stays with us even after reading Burning the Books—a tale of bodies passing that inflamed torch, the baton of knowledge, in multiple directions as they get in touch with one another.

There is much to be gained from thinking about ourselves and others as archives. When we get close to other human beings, we can consult them and be consulted in turn, sharing meaningful confidential information and, in the process, enriching ourselves with new narratives without ever impoverishing or violating the identity of who stands on the other side. But this can only happen if we trust each other. Our societies and institutions can be truly open and healthy only insofar as the bodies, our bodies included, which constitute and nourish them are open to a reciprocal sharing that is at once veritable, respectful and, most importantly, driven by a genuine desire to sieve through the information for the sake of restoring the truth. Much of the historical story that Ovenden traces is discouraging, and rightfully so. But read in light of the equation of archives and bodies, Burning the Books can still be seen to offer hope by means of its counter-exempla—alternative, parallel histories of people who fought against erasure and tried to change the course of their history through witness, by risking their lives and bodies.


Caterina Domeneghini is studying for a DPhil in English Literature at Wolfson College, Oxford.