View from my office
Fire engine sirens continue to wail outside my office window above the National Library of Wales. By now, millions around the world will have seen the appalling pictures of the library’s roof on fire.
Fortunately, the flames have been doused, and the smoke that just an hour ago issued in thick billows from the roof has been reduced to spectre-thin coils. Attention is turning to the recovery plan. I’ve added my name to the list of hundreds of volunteers who over the next couple of days will be forming chains to pass a portion of the library’s millions of books – now under threat from the huge volumes of water moving unpredictably around the building – out of harm’s way. First trial by fire, now by water.
The sight of smoke rising in thick palls – now white, now black – from the roof of the iconic building was shocking in a way that’s perhaps difficult to imagine. Shocking, I think, not just because my profession is books, but also because libraries – and especially national ones – are cultural repositories. To judge from the magnificent response of university and NLW staff, students and members of the Aberystwyth public, we feel moved to salvage the tangible records of our thoughts, achievements, and desires.
There is something potent about the very thought of books burning – it conjures anxieties about annals erased, cultures unmade, radical voices silenced, new thoughts fire-censored.
The biggest book burning of the Romantic period was that which took place during the often forgotten transatlantic war of the early nineteenth century. Established in 1800 by an Act of Congress in America’s then new capital city, Washington DC, the Library of Congress and its 3,000 holdings were destroyed by British Regulars and Canadian Militia, who in August 1814 set about burning the capital’s public buildings, including the White House. The Library of Congress was singled out as a symbol. Within months, Jefferson had sold his private library of some 6,000 volumes to restock the de facto national library.
It’s started raining here. But the sirens are still shrieking.