Long before the free-for-all of the internet’s vast troves of information, long before Wikipedia, the library was humanity’s memory. It’s where we stored our data – albeit in now antiquated technology like books or microfiche – and where millennia of scholars have stored our collective wisdom.
Libraries are to civilisation what books are to people: sources of information, of inspiration, of learning. Collectively, like books, they are the hard drives of our experience and knowledge.
Libraries have always been a kind of sanctuary for me – and millions of other students – where, trite as it sounds, the pursuit of knowledge was a library’s prime reason for being.
When I was a university student, it was where the endless reference works were stored with their essays and other background reading. Everything the hungry mind of a student could want – clichés and all – was in a library.
When I was in school, it was the only place you could find encyclopaedias and illustrated text books. I was one of those kids called a “book worm,” reading my way through school. I only got glasses a few months before the end of primary school, so I never knew teachers writing on blackboards was a relevant part of the lesson. I mostly educated myself by reading.
I’ve always loved libraries, with their stillness and the silent depth of knowledge that the shelves of books infer. I loved working there when I was at varsity, reading those tomes that weren’t available anywhere else. These books and academic journals still cost a small fortune for universities to maintain.
Now, we can work anywhere. Libraries have been replaced by coffee shops as work venues. The shelves of books have been replaced by Wikipedia, by Kahn Academy, by Coursera and all the other free online education resources.
But the library’s central role as the repository of human knowledge is as true now as it was 20 years ago, or several hundred. A library is more than just the sum of its many, many books. It represents how humanity – this tiny group of organisms on a little rock orbiting a distant star on the far end of the Milky Way – has achieved so much. Gone are vagaries of an oral tradition, the possibility of our history or miraculous discoveries being forgotten. Our libraries – and now the internet perhaps – are our living memory. Even in this digital age, libraries are still a special place.
This is why I find the latest evolution of the #FeesMustFall movement – or as Justice Malala says “a small, radical, violent elite is intimidating everyone else into silence” – so pitiably destructive. How can students, who aspire to be educated, behave with such criminal vandalism by burning libraries?
The moment this movement, which once had broad backing from society, degenerated into criminality by burning buildings and facilities, it lost its legitimacy and its honour.
In history the people who have burnt books were the Nazis, Pol Pot’s murderous Year Zero zealots and other repressive regimes who wanted to subdue intelligent thought or legitimate questioning.
How can a movement which demands education for all – free or otherwise – not see the painful irony of its destructive behaviour? How can students who demand they be given an education gleefully burn the actual books they should be studying out of?
Forget arguments that this is the movement’s only form of protest. If you aspire to be educated, then you need to behave with greater responsibility than to burn down the symbol – the library – of that education; or any other academic building for that matter. Educated people should be aware that such violence steals the money intended for maintaining a library or paying tuition fees and wastes it on private security and replacing what was lost in the fire. It’s a crying shame that those who want to be educated are behaving so ignorantly and so dishonourably.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail