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‘Burning the Books’ Series Finale of Out of the Ashes

21 May 2021 - The Trinity Long Room Hub’s Out of the Ashes Lecture Series will conclude its three-year programme on the 25th of May with an online lecture by Richard Ovenden, University of Oxford.

Ovenden has been Bodley’s Librarian at the University of Oxford since 2014 and is the author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. His previous roles include positions at the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland, and the University of Edinburgh, where he was Director of Collections, responsible for integrating the Library, the University Museums and Art Gallery.

In his upcoming public talk, he will explore the deliberate destruction of knowledge held in libraries and archives from ancient Alexandria to contemporary Sarajevo, from smashed Assyrian tablets in Iraq to the destroyed immigration documents of the United Kingdom’s Windrush generation. He will examine both the motivations for these acts—political, religious, and cultural—and the broader themes that shape this history. He will also look at attempts to prevent and mitigate attacks on knowledge, exploring the efforts of librarians and archivists to preserve information, often risking their own lives in the process.


His lecture will address the present challenges facing libraries globally which includes not only their purposeful destruction but also wilful neglect, leaving libraries to fight for their very existence.

“Burning the Books” recounts the history that brought us to this point. Ovenden’s talk will be followed by a response from Helen Shenton, Trinity’s College Librarian and Archivist. Trinity College Dublin has recently announced a €25million funding package from the Government for the redevelopment of Trinity’s Old Library which among other structural improvements will make the Library fire-proof. In recent years, with fires destroying many collections in the National Museum of Brazil, the damage to France's Notre Dame Cathedral and the most recent fire that ravaged the University of Cape Town library, cultural archivists and historians have been highlighting the many risks which remain and which threaten cultural heritage sites on a daily basis. Further to instances of fire damage, the impact of conflict and war on archival preservation is also a concern.  


Across three years, the Out of the Ashes series has been generously supported by Sean and Sarah Reynolds and has explored  the theme of cultural loss and recovery across the centuries, from the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in antiquity to the contemporary acts of cultural loss and destruction. Led by Professor Peter Crooks, School of Histories and Humanities, the series took its immediate impetus from Ireland’s national archival tragedy—the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI) at the Four Courts, Dublin, in 1922 at the outset of the Irish Civil War. The final phase of Ireland’s Decade of Commemorations has been very much to the forefront of the Out of the Ashes series and the series finale forms part of a day-long research showcase from Beyond 2022: Ireland's Virtual Record Treasury Research Project marking the centenary of The Custom House Fire.

The Out of the Ashes series took its immediate impetus from Ireland’s national archival tragedy—the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland (PROI) at the Four Courts, Dublin, in 1922 at the outset of the Irish Civil War.

‘People, Place and Power: Grand Jury Records and Local History’ will discuss how, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Grand Jury was the ‘most important local body in rural Ireland’ and how its records, many destroyed during the 1916-1923 period, present a unique source for Irish local history, social change and genealogy. In association with the Local Government Archives and Record Managers and supported by the Government of Ireland, through the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, under Project Ireland 2040, this showcase will also reveal how the Grand Jury’s decisions impacted directly on daily life in Ireland and the significance of the Grand Jury records for historical research. Speakers include Professor Virginia Crossman (Emerita, Oxford Brookes), Niamh Brennan (Donegal Archives), Lisa Shortall (Offaly Archives), Catherine Wright (Wicklow County Archives & Genealogy Service), and Brian Gurrin and David Brown (Beyond 2022 Project).

Reflecting on the series finale of Out of the Ashes, Professor Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, thanked Professor Peter Crooks for his dedication in leading this initiative and commented on “the important role that public engagement in research can play in highlighting the very real threats to cultural heritage sites around the world and the loss of artefacts and archival information that illuminate our history and identity. This series is an important record of the many threats facing our cultural heritage throughout the ages and the pioneering work of archivists and librarians in trying to protect the world’s great collections.”

Peter Crooks, School of Histories and Humanities, commented: "The lecturers in this series are not just academics. They are social and cultural activists too, often working in perilous circumstances to document loss and protect global heritage. It has been inspiring to listen to their experiences, and humbling to realize how fortunate Ireland has been in a global context."

Register here for ‘Burning the Books’, Out of the Ashes series finale.

To register for the Beyond 2022 Research Showcase Marking the Centenary of the Custom House Fire, click here.

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