Dispatches | September 13, 2011
Fire in a Burning Institution
On Saturday, someone broke into our university library. According to what I’ve heard and read, he went to the bathroom on a table, broke some computers on purpose, and set fire to the place. Librarians and authorities report that the damage was minimal, that most of it came from the sprinkler system waterlogging the carpets and other such things. Therefore, the most significant effect of the assault on our library seems to be that they’ve had to close it for the three ensuing days.
Getting barred from the library can be enough of a problem for those of us who typically spend a lot of time there. But the news of the violence done to our building is additionally troubling, as we have gotten no word on why someone would do such things to a library, of all places.
Admittedly, it’s most likely that this young man (identified in the newspaper story linked above) wanted merely to harm property, and there, manifested in the library, was a large building full of it. Better to destroy fragile computers in a library than desks made of metal and wood in a classroom building. But that explanation is insufficient, as far as my partner and I are concerned, and we’ve been utterly bewildered as to what a library had ever done to this man, to make him want to inflict his vandalism on it.
Destruction of libraries goes probably as far back into our history as there have been libraries to destroy. In 1258, the Mongols conquered Baghdad and destroyed its Grand Library, throwing books into the river and murdering scholars, or so I’ve just learned from Wikipedia. Perhaps the most notorious case of library destruction in human history is the burning of the Library of Alexandria, which, it turns out, you can easily spend half an hour reading about online without realizing how much time has gone by.
A library would seem to be a good place to start a fire, if only because libraries are typically filled with flammable books. That is, however, less and less the case, as libraries – even university libraries – relinquish their collections of print books, or stuff them all in an annex and provide access on campus not to books themselves but to computers, which in my youth were used as a convenient replacement for card catalogs, but which have become many libraries’ centerpieces. If you walk into our own Ellis Library – which, yesterday, you couldn’t – the first things you see are not books but a vast array of computers.
I think this is partly why I am not only frustrated (to put it mildly) that someone would want to torch a library, but am moreso bewildered by it, and eager to learn why someone would commit this crime. According, it seems, to every report I read, libraries are not doing well. Who even thinks of libraries anymore, other than those who like to be in them? Why kick an institution when it’s down?
At our tumblr page this week, we’re featuring material from across the World Wide Web on the theme of Crimes against Libraries. Check us out – or, better yet, follow us on tumblr.
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