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Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries throughout History by Lucien X. Polastron is as its title states about the history of the destruction of knowledge and culture. Probably most of the time in history life was fairly routine and healthy—otherwise magnificent libraries could never have been put together—but when it is looked at in the long run the history of libraries is an amazing string of catastrophes. The Lifehaven Strategy recognized this human tendency toward destruction, and has been attempting to help humanity and its various cultures survive the ongoing repetition of this destructive human impulse by creating remote repositories of knowledge as well as seed and animal banks. This project has been fairly pessimistic in tone because the existence of H-bombs which now permits the wholesale destruction of everything, books as well as people. All that is lacking at the moment is an accident or a really stupid or angry person to the set the inevitable destruction to maximum velocity again.

Books on Fire makes the human impulse to destruction even more bitingly clear than generally realized, because so many of the libraries were destroyed out of simple stupidity, and not even for the questionable value of short term political or military advantage. Time itself destroys many books, and other human artifacts that have fallen out of ongoing usage, but this tends to be rather slow and haphazard. It is only when some powerful human idiocy takes control of a large, and well established institution that a thorough obliteration of books, history, culture, and people takes place. This destruction is not only of foreign cultures for political advantage, but quite often of the very culture wherein the destruction is taking place. This erasure of human achievement for the aggrandizement of some temporary silliness brings a world of sadness to anyone who values humans as a species.

Perhaps modern knowledge will be more difficult to extinguish because, with mass printings of books it becomes impossible to locate them all for destruction. But this new potential permanence of books, and culture, may be an illusion because there are ever increasingly effective ways for finding things, and destroying them. For example along with search engines such as Google there is Google Maps which now lets anyone do a virtual travel down many public streets from the Internet and Library Thing lets one easily catalog ones entire book collection, and RFID now permits all things including books to be located and identified remotely. Combine a more refined level of these technologies together and a Spanish Inquisition type organization can have a complete knowledge of the location of whatever it chooses, and thus its potential destruction. Remember the Monty Python line, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”? (Do I hear a knocking at the door?) At the moment the technology isn’t up to the task, but a continuation of technological growth in that direction will make it increasingly easy. The JuilanA technique for identifying things in time, and space will also make it easier to catalog all things including books, and knowledge in general, which is wonderful for the advancement of wisdom, but it has a dark side of making that wisdom easier for the destroyers to find and destroy.

Humanity needs a backup plan if humans a hundred or a thousand years from now are to have access to the wisdom we now possess. If the past is any predictor of the future we may be certain that the human destructive impulse will arise again, and  again, and try with utmost ferocity to destroy the most precious items that other humans have created. It is a human trait, and it is certain to assert itself again. Thus, we must support the Lifehaven Strategy if we are to have any hope for the future of humanity to have access to our wisdom or even a memory of our having once existed.