The fight for libraries, 'the heart' of democratic freedom

Libraries are under literal attack in Ukraine, and ideological attack amid North America’s culture wars. Oxford librarian and author Richard Ovenden is not about to stay quiet about it. He argues that libraries defend our democratic freedoms, and deserve our defence in return.

Libraries have become ‘battlegrounds for other political motivations,' says Oxford’s Richard Ovenden

An ancient library building destroyed by the Russian occupation forces in the center of Chernihiv (Ukraine).;
An ancient library building destroyed by Russian forces in Chernihiv, Ukraine, April 1, 2022. Oxford librarian Richard Ovenden says targeting libraries amounts to 'an attack on knowledge and free expression.' (Shutterstock / Viktor Kovtun)

Professional introverts, walled off behind books. Stern-faced floor monitors shushing visitors. These are the tired stereotypes of his profession which U.K. librarian Richard Ovenden is determined to counter. 

"Anybody who's worked in libraries knows this has almost certainly never been true, and it's certainly not true today. The idea that we are engaged in serious matters for the sake of society needs to be shouted out."

Those serious matters were described in a talk entitled Libraries as Defenders of Open Society that Ovenden gave at the Toronto Public Library in February 2023 as part of its Freedom to Read Week. 

Richard Ovenden is the 25th Bodley's Librarian, director of libraries at the University of Oxford. He is also the author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge

His 2020 book described historical examples of book burnings and trashed archives, but Ovenden notes that events involving libraries in the last few years have "been a stark reminder of the threats to institutions that most people take for granted."

Richard Ovenden is a white man, with buzzed hair around the ears and mostly bald. He is smiling with his mouth closed, wearing dark, rectangular-framed glasses and a navy suit jacket with a red tie and white shirt.
Richard Ovenden's 2020 book, Burning the Books, delves into the history of destroying knowledge, but he told IDEAS that with 'events like Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the book bannings now, I should be doing another edition of the book. It's not a historic topic anymore. It's a very current one.' (John Cairns/Harvard University Press)

From a Florida state law that requires school librarians to remove contested books from classrooms under threat of imprisonment, to Ukrainian librarians risking their lives to save materials targeted by Russian missiles, Ovenden says "unfortunately, there are many new aspects to the threat to knowledge coming about all the time."

Ovenden's public lecture outlined what he characterizes as "five freedoms that libraries defend for us, and why we must, in turn, defend libraries and archives, as they are at the heart of open, democratic societies."

Freedom to read 

"The current wave of book banning in libraries, and the broader context of censorship and constraints around the freedom of expression, are all stark reminders that the techniques used in Nazi Germany are once again in fashion," said Ovenden. "Suppressing freedom to read is a core tactic used by those who seek to exercise authoritarian control over our societies. Let's be clear: It is our minds that are the true battlefield, and libraries are a good proxy for those."

An archive photo of Nazi soldiers carrying stacks of books they are about to burn.
Nazis carry Jewish books away to be burned during Kristallnacht in Fuerth, Germany, Nov. 10, 1938. (Yad Vashem via AP)

Freedom to learn 

"The American Library Association reports that during 2021-22 there were more than 2,500 book bans in 138 different U.S. school districts and libraries, spread across 32 states covering four million pupils."

Freedom to be a citizen 

"On the evening of August 25, 1992, shells began to rain down on a building in Bosnia's capital city of Sarajevo. The shells were incendiaries, designed to raise fire rapidly on impact, especially when surrounded by combustible material. The building they hit was the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. No other buildings were fired on this day — the library that was the sole target for the shells."

National Library of Sarajevo is lit at night.
The National Library in Sarajevo reopened on May 9, 2014 — 22 years after the landmark building was destroyed during the Bosnian war, along with its nearly two million books and manuscripts. (Amel Emric/Associated Press)

Freedom to know 

"The current investigation by the British House of Commons into former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's administration during the COVID-19 crisis, focusing on messages exchanged by senior figures, highlights the critical importance of these records for the health of our democracy. They used encrypted messaging systems like WhatsApp, and Telegram to evade the normal routine of keeping records in their department, evading the Freedom of Information regimes, and long-term archiving."

Freedom to be who we are 

"Librarians in Ukraine are facing major challenges. They are trying to do their main jobs while under attack. The psychological impact is huge: but still they carry on, protecting their collections, innovating with new services, determined to save knowledge and support their communities. What little we can do to help, we must."

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now