The Librarians’ Power

by Josephine Balmer

book as kindlingThis week is National Libraries Week, a celebration of the wonderful work libraries – and their librarians – do over and over again, day in, day out, offering us all free access to books, especially in these times of increasingly severe local authority budget cuts.

From classical times onwards, this work has always been highly-valued and history resonates with the grief of the loss of such institutions. The story of the destruction of the first great library at Alexandria is told over and over again, if often by sources hostile to the alleged perpetrators. We learn of the accidental fire of Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, the supposed malicious damage of rioting Christian mobs in 391 CE or even the alleged burning of the last few remaining volumes in the city’s bathhouse furnaces by its Arab conqueror Amr ibn al-Asi in 642  (the last is almost certainly apocryphal). Whatever the cause, whatever the agenda of its chroniclers, this sense of horror at the loss of the written word reverberates through the centuries.

But such devastating, wholesale destruction is not confined to the classical or early medieval era. In 2003, during the Gulf War, the famed and ancient National Library of Baghdad was set on fire by a stray incendiary bomb, illustrating how the destruction of literary culture is, sadly, still relevant to us in the twenty-first century. And how we should never take our libraries for granted.

Apart from the National Library’s own important collections, such Arabic centers of learning have always been important in preserving classical literature over the centuries, particularly scientific works. And within such works of science, small snatches of more literary texts were often quoted – and so also saved. And again, in 2003, its determined and dedicated librarians battled to recover its precious, ancient books in the aftermath of the bomb.

The following poem from The Paths of Survival was inspired by an article by Zainab Bahrani with photographs by Roger LeMoyne in the US journal Document (Spring/Summer 2013), and gives voices to those amazing Baghdad Librarians:

The Librarians’ Power

(The National Library, Baghdad, 2003)

We carried what we could to safety.

They seemed like something living:
fungus on an oak, the pleated folds
of open mushroom cup, organisms
that were once books, manuscripts,
now debris of ‘precision’ incendiary.

To conserve them we needed ice
not fire. In a ruined kitchen cellar
we found a freezer but no power;
we canvassed, coaxed, cajoled
until locals offered the sacrifice
of their one precious generator.

We were asked why we struggled
to save books while all around us
so many of our citizens were lost.
We could only say that, if not flesh,
here were dividing cells, bare blocks
of collective memory. Conscience.

The vast record of all our knowledge
and of our faith: an ancient Quran,
the House of Wisdom we had built;
the learning we alone had salvaged
and then protected for the Greeks –
Ptolemy’s Almagest, science, medicine.

Those lost worlds were retrieved
in the flash of forceps, lifting piece
on tiny piece, word on broken word.
Our own enduring, unshakeable belief
that in each newly-deciphered letter
a poem waited to be recovered.

Josephine Balmer

Baghdad Library burnt books