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So to Speak podcast transcript: ‘Burning the Books’ with Richard Ovenden

So to Speak: ‘Burning the Books’ with Richard Ovenden

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Hello, and welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast, where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am your host, as always, Nico Perrino.

As a young undergraduate at Indiana University, I often walked past an etching at the entrance to one of our main campus buildings. The etching was a quote from John Milton’s famous treatise on free expression, Areopagitica. And it read, “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” I’ll never forget that quote and its implication that books are more than just convenient ways to impart information. They are also a piece of someone’s life. They are ideas. They are work. And, as Milton said, they are spirit. As the book lives, so does the individual who wrote it, a form of immortality.

But if a book is more than just a book, so too is the act of destroying a book more significant than the loss of ink on the page. Throughout human history, libraries and books have been deliberately burned, sometimes in an attempt to control information, sometimes in an attempt to control a population. Regardless, and in either case, humanity loses a bit of its past. On today’s episode, we are going to discuss a new book that covers the history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge called Burning the Books. And to do so, we are joined by the author, Richard, Ovenden.

Richard is the director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Balliol College. He was awarded the order of the British Empire in 2019. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and serves as treasurer of the Consortium of European Research Libraries and president of the Digital Preservation Coalition. Richard Ovenden, welcome onto the show.

Richard Ovenden: Thank you. It’s great to be chatting with you.

Nico: So, let’s start, I guess, with the beginning. By way of background, what first got you interested in becoming a librarian, and how did you find your way to one of the world’s greatest libraries, the Bodleian Library?

Richard: Well, I started my career as a librarian, actually, as a student. So, in my university, as an undergraduate, which was at Durham in the north of England, I was in a small college. And in order to earn some money, I became a student librarian. And I’d been as a schoolboy to my local library, my public library, in the small town that I grew up in. So, I knew – I thought I knew what libraries were like. But my college library was very kind of old-fashioned, and it had a kind of quirky collection because it had been a theological college originally.

And I went back one summer vacation to work for the college to move what was called the secondary sequence, in order to enlarge the college bar. And that secondary sequence that I was paid over the summer to work on had some extraordinary rare books of manuscripts in it, and I knew nothing about them. I went across to the university library and knocked on somebody’s door to ask for some advice, “What should I do with these ancient books?” And the person who I was shown to for advice had a brass plaque on her door that said, “Keeper of rare books”. And I thought, “Ooh, that’s a really good job title. I would like to do that someday.”

And she was incredibly kind and supportive of me in my career and gave me good advice and gave me a job, after I graduated, for a year as a trainee librarian. And from there, really, that set me off on my career, and I went to graduate school, and then after graduate school, I went and got a job in the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, the Parliament of England, and worked as a political researcher, librarian, in the House of Lords library. And then, to the National Library of Scotland to one of the kind of great libraries in the northern part of Britain, in Scotland, and worked in the rare books department there.

And then, I moved just a few hundred yards in the same city, in Edinburgh, to the university library there and had a kind of slightly broader role. I was responsible not just for archives and special collections in the library, but also for the university art gallery and the university museums.

And then, in 2003, I moved south, took my family with me, and got a job in the Bodleian, really one of the world’s great libraries, and have had a number of roles there, from keeper of special collections to associate director to deputy librarian. And then, in 2014, I became the grand fromage, the big cheese of the Bodleian, and ancient title called Bodley’s Librarian, which goes back to 1600, and I’m the 25th person since then to hold the title.

Nico: Wow. The Bodleian, as you mentioned, is one of the world’s great libraries, has a super-rich collection. What’s your favorite book in that collection?

Richard: Ooh, now that’s a difficult question. I mean, it changes a lot. Every time one of my colleagues shows me something or we have a special visitor and we kind of troll the collections for things which we think they might be interested in, I see something new, but I think my current favorite is a book called the Codex Mendoza, which was written in Mexico in the 1520s by a scribe who had been an Aztec priest. And he was asked, probably forced, to write in the Mixtec language, this kind of pictogramic language, a depiction of the life of people in the Aztec territories.

And it was written into a blank paper book, which was made of paper milled in Spain and taken across the Atlantic by the conquistadors, and it was filled with these extraordinary drawings, this extraordinary document, which tells you, for example, how Aztec people disciplined their children. Well, what they did is they took them under their arm, and they held their faces over the fire, and in the fire, they put chilis. And it’s full of these extraordinary stories, incredible color, incredible beauty, an incredible kind of glimpse into a lost civilization.

And then, the book was sent back on a ship to Spain to the emperor’s collection, but the ship was hijacked in the Caribbean by French pirates. And it was diverted to the court of France, to the court of Henry IV, where it was given to his chief scientific officer, or what we today would call the chief scientific officer, a man called André Thévet, who then traded it with an Englishman, the chaplain of the English embassy to Paris, and he – and it was really through him that it came to the Bodleian’s collection in the 1650s, through the gift of a great man, a lawyer called John Selden.

Nico: I want to turn now to your book, the Burning the Books project. When did that begin? What was the precipitating event?

Richard: Well, I’ve been concerned for some time about the kind of – the complacency with which society was sort of treating the preservation of knowledge, the preservation of ideas, of information, of data, of facts. And we’ve become a society so used to access, so – with such a great focus on access that I think we’ve been neglecting the importance of preservation. So, that’s the kind of background. The real trigger for me was reading a news report. An investigative journalist wrote an account of – in 2018, in April 2018, in the UK, of the destruction of landing records by the UK government’s home office.

And it struck me. It really made me angry, actually, because at the same time, the same government department was imposing a very, very strict and highly controversial immigration policy, which was known as the hostile environment. And it was hostile because they were pursuing people who had been in our country for many years, who had been invited over, many of them, shortly after World War II, from the former colonies, to come and work in Britain. And they were then being pursued to prove their right to remain in the UK.

And the same department that was instigating this policy had in its own collection the very evidence that those individuals could use to prove their right to remain. But they deliberately destroyed it. And it struck me that this act was an indication of how socially vital it is to preserve knowledge. And so, I wrote an op ed in the Financial Times newspaper, and the next day, I got an email from a publisher saying, “This would make a very interesting book.” And two years later, here we are. It’s published in the United States just last week.

Nico: You know, and it is a fascinating history. Burning the Books shares the history of the destruction of knowledge by sharing the stories of high-profile incidents of such destruction over the course of millennia. Now, one of the first incidents you discuss in your book – and perhaps one of the best known – is the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. Now, this is the stuff of lore. Everyone has their own tale of how it happened. What does our best modern scholarship say happened to that famed library?

Richard: Well, I grew up too thinking that the Library of Alexandria, the world’s greatest library among the ancient civilizations, which stored all of human knowledge as it was known at the time, went up in a great conflagration. And modern scholars now argue very convincingly to me, at any rate, that there was no single act of destruction. There were fires. There were moments where collections in the library were destroyed, but the only thing that the ancient writers actually agree on that there was a great library at one point, and then by the Fourth or Fifth Century, the library had gone.

And it’s really what happened in that intervening three or four centuries after writers like Strabo, the great geographer, who recorded seeing books in the library – he consulted its collections as a scholar in the First Century of the Christian Era. So, what really happened, I think, was that there were a series of small-scale fires. Some of them may have destroyed thousands of books in the form of papyrus scrolls. But actually, what happened was a process of neglect.

You know, the Library of Alexandria was started off as a royal project in the Fourth or Fifth Century before Christ, and the great Ptolemaic rulers of Alexandria who founded the library gave it great resources. They gave it money to build an extraordinary series of buildings. They gave money for it to be stocked with books. They passed laws that any ship that came into the great port that had manuscripts on them should give them up so that they could be copied in the library, and therefore, the collections grew by this act of copying.

And they populated the library with scholars, who could both administer the collections and create new knowledge by their scholarship, by their consulting the documents in the library’s care. But over time, that status changed, and the rulers of Alexandria no longer thought it was appropriate to give it funding, and that period of decline, then over centuries, resulted in the library being finally destroyed, or finally abandoned, perhaps. We don’t know exactly how it left us. We don’t even have any remains, any site in the city of Alexandria today that archaeologists or scholars agree was the site of the great library or one of the two sites, as it was probably split over two sites.

Nico: And we don’t have any texts that might have escaped this destruction that we can point to or that we know of?

Richard: Absolutely. There were texts which, you know, were known – that were copied by other institutions. There was a period of copying texts in the library that – by Roman scholars, Roman libraries. So, we do have some – actually, quite a good indication of the things that were in the library. There was a kind of form of catalogue, the Pinakes, which was formed by one of the librarians, Callimachus, so we have some idea that there were great riches there, many of which, actually, have passed down to us. But there are also indications that there were texts there of which no copy survived.

Nico: Your book is as much a story of the efforts to destroy knowledge as it is the story of efforts to save it. And in that sense, one of the heroes, or somewhat heroes of your book, is this man named John Leland. Who was he, and why should we care?

Richard: Well, John Leland, I don’t know if any of your listeners have read the novels of Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell. They’ve become kind of great successes. There’s been a TV series, and a great Broadway show. And I kind of wish that Hilary Mantel would have mentioned John Leland because he’s a figure that kind of leaps out of that period with a great very kind of vivid manner to me. And that’s partly because my library, the Bodleian, actually has his archives, his notes.

So, he was charged in the 1530s by Henry VIII with looking for evidence to support the king’s desire to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and to marry a beautiful young courtier, Anne Boleyn, and also to find evidence to support the king’s desire to separate from the Church of Rome in what we now call the Reformation, the English Reformation. And so, Leland went on this extraordinary journey known today by scholars as his Itineraries, and he traveled across the country, visiting hundreds of libraries, most of them in religious houses, in monasteries and other great religious institutions.

And he took notes. We know exactly the books that he looked at. We know the libraries that he was very interested in, and he passed these notes back to Henry and to some of his other kind of key courtiers like Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. And these lists actually were then used partly as kind of shopping lists. So, as the Reformation progressed, the religious houses were dissolved, and many of the heads of the houses were executed, and the properties were passed into royal ownership. And many of the books that were in these collections are now in the royal library, which is today part of the British library.

And so, Leland became unwittingly – although he was a great bibliophile. He loved books. He loved visiting many of these libraries, and we know that from the notes that he kept. But he was unwittingly responsible for their destruction, for the breakup of these collections. Some of them survived by being passed into the royal library, but most of the others were torn up and sold as scrap for piemakers to line pie dishes, and there was a phrase that books were dog-cheap, and whole libraries could be had for an inconsiderable nothing.

So, Leland, at the end of his life, looked back on this period, one of the most tumultuous periods in English history, and he was so horrified that his own actions led to the breakup of hundreds of great libraries that he went mad.

Nico: He did try and save some of the books though, didn’t he?

Richard: He did try to save some of them, and some of them passed into his own collections, and some, as I mentioned, passed into the royal library, so they were preserved. But really, it was only a tiny fraction of the collections that had been there when Leland, in the middle of the 1530s went on these great journeys, to look at the libraries. So, you know, I think probably fewer than 10% of the books that were on the eve of the Reformation in those libraries have now passed down to us.

Nico: Wow, and I want to come back to book hunters, but I want to do it at the end of the conversation. Next up, I want to talk about how not all destruction comes from outsiders. Sometimes, it comes from the creators themselves. Can you talk about the dueling cases of Franz Kafka and Philip Larkin?

Richard: Yeah, well these are – I was very interested in the idea of who controls history. Who controls the legacy of the past? Who controls the reputation, not just of communities or of entire countries, but of individuals? And I chose a number of writers to look at this question from. And there are two kind of contrasting cases. And one of them is of the great writer Franz Kafka, who was regarded today as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, certainly regarded as the greatest writer in the German language, and he’s entered our everyday language. We talk of things being Kafkaesque.

But what Kafka did – and in 2024, we’ll mark the centennial of his death. He actually published very little in his lifetime, and most of his works that we enjoy today were posthumously published. And so, in his latter year, he gave instructions to his great friend, the publisher/writer/editor Max Brod, who he asked to destroy his unpublished writings. And Brod was such a kind of devoted follower, but also a great admirer of Kafka’s writing that he chose to disobey those instructions, and he kept the archive together.

He was on pretty much the last train out of Prague in 1939 before the Nazis entered the city, and so he was responsible for both preserving the collection of unpublished writings and then publishing, then seeing them through the press, through a series of publication efforts. So, it’s really thanks to that disobeying the instructions to destroy that we have this great trove of writings by Kafka.

And I contrast that in my book with the brilliant poet Philip Larkin, again, one of the great poets in the English language in the latter part of the 20th Century, and a former librarian. He was the librarian of the University of Hull in the north of England. And again, Larkin very explicit instructions to his lover, Monica Jones, and to his secretary, Betty Mackereth, that his unpublished notebooks, his journals, should be destroyed at his death.

And so, Betty took the notebooks from his desk drawer in his office in the library. She tore the pages out. We still actually have the covers, the bindings of these journals, and she fed them through the office shredder, and then just to be doubly sure, she took the bag of shredded papers down to the library incinerator and burned them. And so, we have none of those innermost thoughts of Larkin’s, the innermost thoughts that he was anxious would not pass down.

And scholars have tried to kind of reconstruct those from his correspondence because he was a very kind of diligent correspondent to the kind of key people in his life. But you know, there are two kind of contrasting cases there, Kafka and Larkin, and the role that preservation of that knowledge in the case of Kafka, how much that has enriched the cultural life of the world.

Nico: How should we think about balancing the wishes of content creators such as Franz Kafka and Philip Larkin who do not want their creations to be preserved for history, but also the societal interest in preserving that history? And I’m thinking also about how privacy considerations factor in the equation and in particular, Europe’s right to be forgotten law.

Richard: Yeah, I think it’s a very difficult area. There are no kind of clear-cut guidelines that I can suggest or point to. I think that at the end of the day, the private wishes of an individual are of huge importance. And so, there are many instances where I think it’s absolutely right to follow through from those wishes. And privacy is hugely important in an age where we are constantly surveilled when we interact with digital media in particular.

And I think that the right to be forgotten, which is a European law associated with Europe-wide legislation from across the European community, and that’s more about – it’s not so much of destroying knowledge but rendering it impossible to find by allowing individuals to insist on the removal of index entries in the search engine indexes rather than allowing people to kind of erase the past by removing webpages themselves. The pages – it’s the index. It’s the act of searching that’s disrupted by the right to be forgotten.

So, I think there are kind of – each case really has to be taken on its own merits. Max Brod argued that Kafka knew that Brod wouldn’t go through with the instructions and therefore, by tasking Brod with the act, he was kind of sort of tacitly agreeing to the preservation. You know. Whether or not that was the case, we’ll kind of never know. But I’m glad that he saved the unpublished papers.

Nico: One of the most recent examples that we have of the destruction of cultural heritage comes from the Islamic state, ISIS. They seem to me to be, in some part, most notoriously known for their destruction of physical sites, such as Palmyra and Nimrud, but they also stole or destroyed collections from, I believe it was, the Central Library of Mosul, which I think they rigged with explosives. There was a library at the University of Mosul, and then the museum library there as well. You know, this is recent.

Your interest in preserving history, were you involved in trying to preserve any of that history, part of any of the discussions that archivists or librarians were having as to try and save those collections? You know, and what was the thinking about including it or not including it in your book?

Richard: Well, I didn’t include the ISIS very – in any great kind of detail in my book, and that’s partly because I’d kind of run out of space, and there were so many instances of the deliberate destruction of knowledge that I could’ve filled, unfortunately, probably four or five books of the same size. So, my case studies are kind of deliberately selective. I do have a chapter devoted to Iraq in the book, which is actually about a slightly different issue, which perhaps we could come onto later. But I think going to ISIS is really religiously-inspired destruction in order to kind of eradicate anything that is deemed to be un-Islamic or contrary to the extreme Islamic views which ISIS perpetrated.

And so, their kind of iconoclasm, their kind of severe interpretation of Islamic doctrine, I think, became contorted into this exercise of raw power and aggression. And it has been an absolutely devastating period of time for cultural heritage and for the preservation of knowledge in Syria, in Iraq, and other parts of the world where Islamic extremism has had a foothold, in Mali, in Timbuktu, for example, well-documented cases there.

And I think these are very modern examples of religiously-motivated destruction, which to some extent, go back to the Middle Ages and the Reformation period. In continental Europe, you find Anti-Semitism bring about great destruction of Jewish knowledge. You find Protestants destroying Catholic texts. You find Catholics destroying Protestant texts. Catholics and Protestants destroying Jewish texts. So, there are kind of multiple examples of that desire to eradicate contrary opinion.

But at the same time, there are these kind of heroic acts of preservation, and I think going back to ISIS, I’m sort of involved very much on the periphery with the efforts to rebuild both the central library and the university library in Mosul, and I’ve hosted, on several occasions, the librarian from Mosul, who has come to visit Oxford, and I’ve given talks to his group of librarians.

And I’m part of a UNESCO committee that’s trying to support the rebuilding of the library there, and I think that those kind of impulses, both from the community of libraries, but also from scholars and just kind of lovers of knowledge and lovers of the truth, is really inspiring. And I think it’s the latest example of that desire to kind of rebuild and to ensure that knowledge can survive, that culture and truth can survive in support of communities and society.

Nico: On the other side of the coin, at the end of your book, you talk about how there was a denial of service attack on the Internet Archive for maintaining an archive of ISIS material. I wanted to ask you, how should we think about efforts by individuals, either in a vigilante way, such as in a denial of service attack, or in a more formal way, to prevent access to certain knowledge. I’m thinking because they see it as dangerous. I’m thinking here about the ISIS materials, but I’m also thinking of more culturally resonant things, like Hulu dropping Gone with the Wind because of its racist themes or similar demands here in the United States to purge the movie Birth of a Nation.

How should we think about those efforts, and in the same vein, efforts to de-platform or no-platform different speakers? I’m trying to just see if there’s a substantive difference between someone forcibly preventing an audience from accessing a material or hearing a speech, as opposed to reading a book.

Richard: I think there is a substantive difference. You know, I think if there was a kind of campaign to destroy every copy of Gone with the Wind, I think that would be something I would get extremely concerned about, that if it was an attempt to kind of get rid of every print or every copy of that film and to kind of eradicate it from the planet, I think that’s the focus of my book. That’s the real kind of concern that I have.

I think in terms of issues of – which is really more about censorship of knowledge – and I think there are many cases where libraries and other collections or publishers have to be very sensitive to local circumstances. They have to be sensitive to the communities which they serve. They have to be sensitive to the kind of tenor of the time. But I think that as a rule, I support the view that we should be permitting, in our society, the widest possible articulation of human difference, and I think that if content incites harassment or bullying or intimidation, it should be prohibited, but I think otherwise, we have to accept that free speech is one of the pillars of an open society.

It’s one of the pillars of a democratic civilization, and alongside free elections and independent judiciaries, freedom of speech must be thought of alongside the preservation of knowledge, and I think that these two things go side-by-side, but they are different things.

Nico: Yeah, and the ISIS archive, to me, seems to be the test case for this sort of thing. You know, it did inspire many people, many from the United States and from the United Kingdom, to head to Syria and join this death cult, essentially. But at the same time, it is such a historical event, and the records of it are needed to understand that event that you would hate to lose those records, right? I think they tell you something about history.

Richard: Yes, I think it’s very important not to lose those records. I mean, just look at the efforts that have been made to preserve Nazi documentation on the Holocaust. I think there is a great concern in Jewish communities that this information must be preserved so that we can point to what happened in the past, the ideas that these individuals in the Nazi regime, that infected much of German society. We have to preserve that act. We have to preserve that history, partly so that we can avoid repeating it. And we haven’t been too great at that across the world, since 1945, but I really think that we need to preserve those incidents so that we can try our best to understand the mentality and to avoid it being repeated.

And so, I think the archivists and librarians have a duty of care when you hold material like that, and I’ve certainly come across instances where with things like auto-recommending engines that you can see somebody searching for books about the Holocaust or Nazism, getting in serious historical books, get a recommendation, a promotion, to buy an edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

I, personally, find that kind of very offensive, that these kind of AI algorithms would recommend reading Mein Kampf. But I wouldn’t say that we should remove Mein Kampf from library collections. I think people should have the opportunity to read it and to understand it, to critique it, to help put other things in context to be able to identify where Hitler is being quoted by contemporary politicians or extremists. We need that knowledge to help root our society today because it’s come from a past, the ideas that are current in society today have come from somewhere, and we need to know where that somewhere is and what it was like in order to be able to tackle the problems that we face today.

Nico: And Mein Kampf can of course teach us a lot about the rise of Hitler and Nazism. I mean, having read it myself, it's very hard to come away from reading that book and not understanding the direction that Germany would go as far as Anti-Semitism went and then the Final Solution went. I mean, it was essentially laid out there in Mein Kampf. So, it’s important to understand that from the historical perspective as well. I wanted to ask you, how much of the librarian’s work today deals with the digital world, up to and including the digitization of physical collection? We think of librarians, we think of physical books and book stacks, but is most of your work today involved in the digital world?

Richard: I would say it probably is. Across my organization, we have about 40 buildings. We have 28 library reading – library sites. We probably have about 35, 36 reading rooms, and we have 30 million printed volumes, which circulate across our collections, are available for study, and 40 kilometers of archives and manuscripts.

So, we have a lot of physical collections, but if you look at the data of interactions with the knowledge that we hold, the majority of those interactions are digital, and so they’re the millions of downloads of journal articles. Last year, we had nearly 80 million searches of our online catalog. We have millions of eBooks available and eBook chapters.

We have 150 million pages of our physical collections in digital form through our digitization activities, so there’s a vast world of digital information out there, and what we are really tackling now is the challenges, both of being able to educate our community and how best to search for and utilize that digital information when there’s so much of it, but also how to preserve it, how to ensure that what we look at today in digital form we can trust and rely on to be there, even in five or 10 years’ time, let alone in 400 years.

Nico: Yeah, you talk about the case of Flickr in your book. I believe it was Flickr, right?

Richard: Yes, yeah. So, Flickr, which is just one case of a number of platforms where users, both individuals and institutions, have placed images and have thought of them as a kind of tool for preserving those images, a safe place to keep them and to share them and to be able to share them. And of course, it’s been free. All up to a point, it’s been free. And a couple of years ago, Flickr announced with actually remarkably short notice that they were going to remove all content held by individual account holders up to a certain point.

So, the amount of free storage that you had was going to drop, and then after that, you had to pay a fee in order to keep it. And I think they were facing challenges from platforms like Facebook, which were getting more and more traffic. And so, there will be many individuals and institutions who didn’t regularly go back and visit their Flickr site, or they didn’t get the email from Flickr telling them what was gonna happen, and they would have lost their content, and I said I think it’s really important to realize that these free services are free for a reason, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch kind of thing, and that’s certainly true with the internet. And so, also, a lesson that storage is not the same as preservation.

Nico: So much, when you’re a history student understanding history comes from private diaries and private correspondences. Our modern version of that, for better or for worse, is email. We send a lot of email to each other, but that’s held by a third party. Is there a way of thinking about this in the librarian community about how to preserve some of those correspondences so that it’s not like we lose the stuff. You know it’s that after the death of written correspondences, we really don’t have individuals’ correspondence anymore, outside of the, you know, of course, government institutions here in the United States they are required to be preserved, but private correspondences?

Richard: I think this is a big issue that’s facing society. And I think we’re just on the cusp of realizing the implications of moving to electronic communication, and I think that email is actually kind of on the way out. So much, I just think of my family members who are using WhatsApp. They’re using text messages. They’re sending communications to each other using Facebook and other social media platforms. So, there are multiple different ways in which communication happens, and that communication, those platforms, those mechanisms, are all controlled by major technology corporations and what my Oxford colleague, Timothy Garton Ash, calls the “private superpowers”.

And you know, when you click through those licenses, where you say “I accept” to allow you to have an account on those platforms and to use them, you’re actually giving away ownership of that content to those technology companies. You’re allowing them to harvest your data. The record of interactions that you have on that platform. Every time you not only send a message or post an image onto Facebook, but every time you click “like” or do one of the other of those interactions, it’s leaving a trace. It’s leaving a digital trace that’s being harvested and gathered and built into a profile of your online behavior.

And as that online behavior extends to the Internet of Things, so not just your searching on the big search engines but also the use of your credit card online, ecommerce sites, but also things recording your health, things like Fitbits.

All of that data is being pulled and traded every day by these big corporations and then used to target not just commercial advertising back at you, but now increasingly, we know through the activities of Cambridge Analytica, of Facebook, targeting political campaigning back at you, so not just encouraging you to vote for ap articular way, but giving information to help to suppress your voting, in many cases.

And not just in the Brexit referendum of 2016 or the 2016 US presidential elections, but in a variety of other countries across the world, these kind of uses of what is known as big data for political ends and to making these tech companies even richer is happening all over the place, so it’s a real worry for society, I think.

Nico: So, I want to turn to my last question here. Maybe close on a soaring note. While I was a student at Indiana University, I was a history student. My specialization was in ancient history and Renaissance history, and I was enthralled by the story of Poggius Bracciolini and Nicolaus De Niccolis. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but –

Richard: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Nico: Yeah, they were two renaissance-era book hunters, and there’s actually a book that was put together of their correspondences called Two Renaissance Book Hunters: The Letters of Poggius Bracciolini and Nicolaus De Niccolis. And they kind of scoured Europe seeking to rediscover lost ancient texts, and they found many. And I believe there was a New York Times bestseller that won the Pulitzer called The Swerve about Bracciolini’s –

Richard: By Stephen Greenblatt.

Nico: There you go. I actually haven’t read it, but I have read their actual letters, so it may be the primary source in this case. But this is a great collection of letters, and you can almost feel the excitement that comes through their pens as they discover texts that hadn’t been seen or read in hundreds of years. They’re rediscovering a lost history. This is like a real life version of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I wanted to ask you, does such adventure still exist for those seeking to uncover lost knowledge, or have we found most of what is lost?

Richard: Ooh, that’s a very interesting question.

Nico: Have there been discoveries like that in recent history?

Richard: You know, I think there have been discoveries like that. I think it’s not lost knowledge. I think it’s just a lot of the discoveries that are being made – you know, the discovery of Milton’s annotated copy of the first folio of Shakespeare is a good example just a couple of years ago by an English scholar, Jason Scott-Warren, at Cambridge University working with American colleagues identified a book that’s been well-known.

The copies of the first folio of Shakespeare are very, very well-known, very well-documented and studied. This one was covered in ink annotations by contemporary reader, and these have been looked at by quite a few people, quite a few scholars over the years. It’s held in a library in Philadelphia. And it took somebody who knew the hand of John Milton to identify the annotator as the great – well, we started this conversation off, didn’t we, with your quote from the Areopagitica. So, there are discoveries like this, which are still there to be made, and I think there are plenty of that kind of discovery, almost seeing knowledge that’s hidden in plain sight, if you like.

That book had been well looked after, well-catalogued. It was available for everyone to see. The librarians had looked after it. They catalogued it, giving the best knowledge that they had. And so, there’s all of that. There are still collections in private ownership that will come out and come into institutions to be made available again, painstakingly preserved by librarians and archivists, catalogued by them, and made available to scholars, written up in podcasts or blogs, tweeted, and digitized. My colleagues in the profession work really, really hard to make it easy for students and scholars to access this kind of knowledge.

So, all of that continues to go on. And I think one of the exciting things about the digital world is as we scan and digitize more and more of our analog past, the ability to use new kinds of scholarship, algorithms, text and data mining, visualization techniques, other forms of heritage science to understand the material culture of the past in new and interesting ways.

I think these are gonna open up new forms of discoveries, perhaps not quite as romantic or exciting as it was for Poggio Bracciolini and his colleagues in Renaissance Italy, but I think those discoveries are going to be there, and I think they will change our understanding of the world we live in, and now that will change our understanding of the past.

Nico: Well, I think we have to leave it there. Mr. Ovenden, I really appreciate you coming on the show.

Richard: Thank you for the conversation I really enjoyed it too.

Nico: That was Richard Ovenden. He is the director of the famed Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University and the author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, which is now available through book retailers everywhere.

This podcast is hosted, produced, and recorded by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by Aaron Reese. You can learn more about So to Speak by following us on Twitter at or liking us on Facebook at We also take email feedback at If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever else you get your podcasts. They do help us attract new listeners to the show. And until next time, thanks again for listening.

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