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The AC Digs Into: The Destruction of Knowledge Systems

August 22, 2018

Dr. Rebecca Knuth is a leading expert in the destruction of books, libraries, and archives and the motivation that leads regimes to destroy whole systems of knowledge. She has written two books about book burning and cultural destruction: Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. To learn more about Dr. Knuth’s work, visit her website at


What is “libricide”?

“Cide” means killing, so libricide is the killing of libraries, books, and other bibliographical material. More specifically, libricide is the regime-sponsored violent destruction of books and libraries in modern times. It is the destruction of a system. Akin to genocide or ethnocide, libricide is often committed for ideological reasons.

What are the most severe threats to bibliographical materials today?

Imploding societies. Books, libraries, and archives are most threatened where there is war, extremism, and ethnic or religious conflict.

Is the threat to bibliographical material different than the threat to antiquities?

While there is overlap between the two, there are several important differences. First, the material format; books are made of paper. This makes them especially vulnerable when exposed to the elements or burned. Second, the content of bibliographical material makes them prime targets because they provide witness to alternative claims and alternative belief systems. Third, the symbolic nature of books and records make them a particularly satisfying target. Books are tied in with cultural claims

of identity and status as a sophisticated society or people, which gives them a particular symbolic importance.

What are the necessary steps to counter these threats?

At the very least, we need to digitize and secure the content. Any type of antiquity is a text, but if you take it out of its context, you lose a lot of meaning. Books and records can carry their context better than artifacts. Second, we must focus on prevention and become less reactionary. The cultural heritage community must figure out “why” bibliographical materials are targeted.

What’s one thing the cultural heritage community can do differently or improve?

We need focus on coalitions across fields and countries that bring everyone to the table. Not just archaeologists or diplomats, but librarians, political groups, and religious groups.

What’s next for you?

I am still transitioning, post-retirement, from academic writing to more popular non-fiction. Currently, I am finishing a book on women writers and censorship, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Sylvia Plath.