There is no document of civilization
which is not at the same time
a document of barbarism.
And just as such a document is not free of barbarism,
barbarism taints also the manner
in which it was transmitted
from one owner to another.
Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940
“Ueber den Begriff der Geschichte”, used at the beginning of this film
Julian Samuel, a Montreal-based filmmaker born in Pakistan, continues
his exploration of the contemporary world of libraries in this 80-minute
documentary. He first investigated libraries in his instant library
classic, “The Library in Crisis.” Here is the description from the
distributor’s website – Filmakers Library –
Dense with the informed commentary of notable scholars,
this documentary in
effect traces the history of civilization through the
phenomenon of the library.
From ancient China, India, Islam, and the Graeco Roman
world, we see how the
library radiated knowledge and spiritual values, and
facilitated the cross
fertilization of ideas from one culture to another.
“Crisis” was made before 9/11 and focuses on the hottest crises at that
time – the effects the WTO may have on libraries, the commercialization
of libraries, mindless weeding and closing of libraries, expansion of
copyright by computer corporations, and much more. No film I have ever
seen on libraries comes close in exploring so much in such a short
period of time – 46 minutes.
I contacted the filmmaker in Canada, and sent him videotapes of
interviews with Sanford Berman. Originally, he was going to interview
Sandy and other American library leaders, but after the draconian war
against people from Pakistan and other East Asian countries by the Bush
Administration after 9/11, Samuel took the official Canadian advice to
NOT cross the border. (After previewing this film, I watched the new
doc, “Persons of Interest” on the Sundance Channel, about the 5,000
people arrested after 9/11 who were imprisoned and never charged with
any crime – other than being from an Arab country.) Thus this film did
not include these voices – but rather focused on Irish and English
libraries plus the new Bibliotheca Alexandria.
Unlike “The Library in Crisis,” this film looks at race and class.
Various library historians discuss how public libraries were used both
to stop the locals from contemplating revolution a la Russian Communism
during and after WWI and to serve as a place for debate. By cutting back
and forth from Irish and English library events to the history of the
Library of Alexandria, Egyptian public libraries, and current programs
in the Bibliotheca Alexandria, like one on unemployment and youth, the
viewer is counter-conditioned to reject Western racism. Samuel wants to
show the West that we are the inheritors of the great Arab-Asian
tradition of libraries going back thousands of years – not its enemy.
The facts are piled on, not using the standard Ken Burns-style of slow
discourse, but rather throwing the facts at us, using optical printing,
aiming to create a much more complicated GESTALT in our minds. This is
extremely refreshing to someone who has watched a thousand such films,
and found them boring. His style is more like the Hong Kong master Wong
Kar-wai or Godard, demanding that the viewer has a universe of images
already in his mind, waiting for someone to link them together in new
Like all serious intellectuals, Samuel begins with Walter Benjamin, the
cornerstone of post-WWII global analysis. By doing this he shows right
from the beginning that he is not guilty of ant-Semitism and Arab
fanaticism. He shows that he really wants truth and justice, at whatever
cost. He wants to show that libraries have been one of the few places of
truth and justice for a long time, and that there are really only two
kinds of people – those who respect such sacred places and those who do
The visual images of the libraries he shows are exquisite, lingering on
the walls, the books, the people, and the spaces that libraries have
used over the centuries. He is a painter, an artist – as well as a
philosopher, historian, and freedom fighter. The director of the
Bibliotheca Alexandria talks about the shapes of the library – using an
incomplete sun disk, the earth, a moon, the sea, and alphabets from all
over the world, none making a single sentence.
This film notes a key historical possibility that I very much believe in
– and that is that if the great world of the original Alexandrine
Library had been allowed to continue, our world would have been much
better, and mankind would have landed on the moon by 1000 AD. There is a
new field of alternative histories, including Philip Roth’s new book
about a US with a Nazi Charles Lindbergh as president. Samuel has a
crawl that states that there was one other time when there was a
possibility of a “brilliant scientific civilization” – the 700 years of
the first Alexandrine Library under the Greeks, and he notes that most
of the Old Testament comes to us from items once found in that library.
During the last half of the film he interviews Tom Twiss, a University
of Pittsburgh government documents librarian, who has flown to Canada
for the interview. During the next 30 minutes or so Twiss discusses the
war against people’s access to federal government information, pointing
out that as our government has limited our access to them, they have
increased their access to us – library patrons- under the Patriot Act.
Twiss is also an expert on the destruction of Palestinian libraries. He
talks about the New Orient House and what happened to it during an
Israeli invasion of the West Bank. He points out that Lutheran libraries
were also attacked without any reaction worldwide – but that there is
ample proof of the events. He notes that some Israeli newspapers even
ran editorials about the “cultural cleansing” but many Israelis deny it
even happened. One gruesome story he gives is about the Israelis taking
books going to Palestinian libraries, shipping to Israeli ones instead.
Another expert on the reality of libraries in Palestine is Erling Bergen
of the Oslo National Library who talks about the destruction of their
libraries, and a tour by international librarians to these libraries,
seeing first hand how much the children use them.
Finally, the destruction of Iraqi libraries is discussed, mainly by IFLA
president Ross Shimon and an Iraqi political leader. The Iraqi discusses
who destroyed the books, and how important they still are in the life of
war-worn Iraqis. Shimon talks about writing letters to Saddam and Blair
(since he is British), requesting that they protect Iraqi libraries
during the coming war.
Samuel ends up back where he began – in a Dublin library. The librarian
talks about the importance of Iraq as the birthplace of civilization.
Samuel has again created a masterpiece about the contemporary library. I
suggest that it be included with the many Arab Film Festivals that have
been created by thoughtful people around the world since 9/11. As
always, non-Arabs and Arabs will discover that they have much more in
common than they realize – and that they are brothers and sisters, not
enemies. All librarians should see this film, and I am sure they will
feel like I do that librarians must leave their beautiful houses of
culture, and join the fight to protect them from the despots East and
West who will eventually destroy them. One librarian talks about how the
Book of Kells was protected from the invading English, being moved from
site to site, even in a building used by the invaders as a headquarters.
A very good companion book to read is Matthew Battles recent,
“Libraries -An Unquiet History.” I read it two summers ago on a porch
near Wilmington, North Carolina, smoking and sitting under a semi-useful
ceiling fan with my dog. I took my time and savored the amazing history
Mr. Battles has written, taking a global perspective somewhat akin to
Mr. Samuel’s. I was very impressed with his brief history of libraries
in China and England, and consider his account of the war against my
friend Sanford Berman to be the best in any book I have read so far.
A second book is also excellent. There is a brief discussion of
“libricide” in this film – and now there is an excellent book on the
subject – “Libricide : The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and
Libraries in the Twentieth Century” by Rebecca Knuth. It looks at five
particular cases - Germany, Bosnia, Kuwait, China and Tibet. Of course
it doesn’t mention the uncontrolled “weeding” of American libraries
during the last decade, most famously in San Francisco where thousands
of books were buried in a landfill.
Read together, “An Unquiet History” and “Libricide”,” along with “Save
and Burn” would make an excellent introduction for beginning MLS
students anywhere in the world. Or as a “Continuing Education” course
for working MLS librarians. Hopefully I will be able to show “Save and
Burn” at the spring West Virginia Library Association conference in
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