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Abandoned books in Pripyat, Ukraine

Abandoned books in Pripyat, Ukraine. Photo by Magalie L'Abbé, 2011, via Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

By Phil Jones and Denise O'Dea

On Saturday, 23 April 2016, UNESCO celebrates books and literacy as part of the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day. UNESCO’s idea that books should be seen as global symbols of social progress is one that resonates with us here at Sydney University Press. As scholarly publishers we aim to publish books that engage, inspire and stimulate debate. Books and the written word have the capacity to change the lives of individuals, and to change society.

If creating a book can change the world, what can taking away a book do? In 1996, the year of the first World Book and Copyright Day, UNESCO also compiled “Lost Memory”, a list of libraries and archives destroyed during the twentieth century. In a sombre counterpoint to the celebrations of World Book and Copyright Day, it documents libraries lost to war, vandalism, natural disaster and neglect. As Hans van der Hoeven notes in his introduction, “books, periodicals and manuscripts constitute the collective ‘Memory of the World’”; when we lose one, we forget a piece of our past. While celebrating World Book and Copyright Day, we took a moment to remember some of these “lost” books and libraries

Burnt books
In the past and, sadly, even today, those wishing to clamp down on the spread of culture, education, dialogue and tolerance have done so through the symbolic act of burning books. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library has created a thought-provoking history of book burning, from 213 BC to the twenty-first century. It is a sobering reminder of why we need a day dedicated to the promotion and preservation of the written word. As the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, puts it: “We must redouble efforts to promote the book, the pen, the computer and all forms of reading and writing, in order to fight illiteracy and poverty, build sustainable societies, and strengthen the foundations of peace.”

Books lost to time
From Herman Melville’s mysteriously “missing” book (did his publishers destroy the manuscript because they feared being sued?) to Ernest Hemingway’s first novel (unfinished, it was stolen along with his wife’s suitcase at the Gare de Lyon), the Smithsonian rounds up ten books we’ll never get to read. Over at Lost Manuscripts, you can read about other misplaced works (filed under categories including “burned”, “stolen”, “disappeared” and “eaten”) and how their loss changed the course of literary history.

Abandoned libraries
This gallery of abandoned libraries from around the world is moving and strangely transfixing. Some, like the school library at Pripyat, near Chernobyl, were obviously abandoned in a hurry. Others seem to have suffered a more gradual decay. The photographer Brandon Davis has documented in detail the slow disintegration of one abandoned public library in Detroit, with its piles of unread books, dusty library cards and disintegrating shelves.

Meanwhile in Mauritania, in the former trading centre of Chinguetti, a network of ancient libraries houses around 6000 precious books and manuscripts, including some of the oldest Koranic texts in the world. These libraries are not abandoned – but they are under threat from the expanding Sahara. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000, the “City of Libraries” is a monument to books and writing – and a reminder that sometimes, it takes international action to preserve them.

Man reading in Chinguetti, Mauritania

A man reads in Chinguetti, Mauritania. Photo by [John], 2009, via Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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