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Interview with Richard Ovenden: Burning the Books for History of the Book

This post is a work in progress, as we add summaries and reflections on our interview with Richard Ovenden.

On Monday 21 September 2020, Lena Zlock (History of the Book and Modern Languages alumna and current DPhil in Education) interviewed Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, about his latest work, Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge under Attack (Belknap Press, 2020).

Lena Zlock interviews Richard Ovenden on “Burning the Books” & its relevance to History of the Book

Special thanks to Henrike Lähnemann (@henrike) for audiovisual assistance and contributions to the interview.

Burning the Books is a sprawling history of heroic efforts to preserve knowledge and centuries of its destruction, from the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry XVIII to the state archives of the Stasi in East Germany. It is also a wake-up call in an era of fake news and disinformation: the time has come for librarians, archivists, scholars, and students to save knowledge once more.

We were fortunate to have the chance to ask Richard about the book, and where HoB students fit into he lays out. A major take-away from this interview is that preservation is an active choice, and, now more than ever, we cannot afford to wait decades to act. Through their coursework and projects, HoB students have a unique opportunity to contribute their skills to this mission. Over the next few months, they will learn how to catalogue, edit, annotate, image, digitise, and more (check out projects from last year’s cohort, including Vincent Leung’s discovery, annotation, and digitisation of a manuscript by Dante). Richard encourages HoB students to maximise their experience by talking to curators in the Bodleian, who can point them to collections that are understudied.

Even with the seemingly unending breadth of Oxford’s libraries, Richard reminds us that so much data is being generated outside of curated spaces. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement pushed us to reconsider the origins, ownership, and narratives of our collections. It has also created a deluge of social media output, and media spanning textual, visual, and audio mediums. The ‘antiquarii‘ of the future will need to have the skills, curiosity, and confidence to navigate these new spaces.

Purchase a copy of Burning the Books in stores or online from Blackwell’s or the Bodleian Library Shop (students and alumni: be sure to get your discount!).

Follow Richard Ovenden @richove, Henrike Lähnemann @HLaehnemann, and Lena Zlock @LZlock89.

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