Burn a Country’s Past and You Torch Its Future

The Library of Congress stands today as the embodiment of our national memory. Imagine a horde of vandals
burning it and the National Archives while an alien army guarded the FBI headquarters and the Treasury
Department, and you may have some notion of how Iraqis felt when American troops erected a protective
cordon around the ministries of oil and of the interior while permitting looters to demolish the National
Library and ransack the National Museum. […]
Few people appreciate the fragility of civilizations and the fragmentary character of our knowledge about
them. Most students believe that what they read in history books corresponds to what humanity lived
through in the past, as if we have recovered all the facts and assembled them in the correct order, as if we
have it under control, got it down in black on white, and packaged it securely between a textbook’s covers.
That illusion quickly dissipates for anyone who has worked in libraries and archives. You pick up a scent in
a published source, find a reference in a catalogue, follow a paper trail through boxes of manuscripts — but
what do you discover in the end? Only a few fragments that somehow survived as evidence of what other
human beings experienced in other times and places. How much has disappeared under char and rubble?
We do not even know the extent of our ignorance.

Imperfect as they are, therefore, libraries and archives, museums and excavations, scraps of paper and
shards of pottery provide all we can consult in order to reconstruct the worlds we have lost. The loss of a
library or a museum can mean the loss of contact with a vital strain of humanity. That is what has happened
in Baghdad.

Princeton historian Robert Darnton in the Washington Post – worth to read in full!


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