Made by History

What Libraries Risk When They Go Digital

6 minute read

Over the past few years, libraries and archives across the world have worked to digitize their resources. The United States, United Kingdom, and India, for instance, have all invested in expanding digital collections for their records. A recent ransomware attack on the British Library, and the many months-long disruption it has caused forces us to ask how safe these digital records are.

On Oct. 28, 2023, the British Library’s (BL) website was hacked, rendering it nonfunctional for several weeks. The library did not restore its home page until Dec. 19, and it was a month before its basic catalogue was searchable again in January. The bulk of the library’s online resources will take much longer to restore, leaving students and scholars with research plans across the world in limbo. The British Library and its staff are currently rebuilding their catalog and restoring access to their records—which range from archival documents covering centuries of British rule to the largest collection of recently digitized Geoffrey Chaucer’s manuscripts.

This recent cyber-attack is a reminder that while digitization has proved to be a powerful tool for librarians, archivists, and historians who seek to preserve historical records and enhance access to them, it also makes information much more vulnerable. Whether the hack was motivated by ideological violence is not yet clear, but our libraries are undeniably under siege. Nor is this a new phenomenon. As repositories of historical, cultural, and administrative knowledge, they have long been targets for those who seek to undermine what libraries stand for—specifically, their ability to represent civilizations and people in ways that inform national identity, cultural pride, and collective memory.

Read More: Attacks on Libraries Are Attacks on Democracy

Such battles over information and memory go back centuries. For instance, in 1258, Hulegu Khan, a brother of the Mongol Emperor, besieged Baghdad, demanding the submission of the Caliph. Less than a month after the Mongol armies arrived at his walls, the Caliph surrendered. After demanding the evacuation of the city, the Mongols attacked anyway, massacring the surrendering population. As they sacked Baghdad, they singled out the Grand Library, also known as the House of Wisdom. The library was not looted; it was destroyed. Its books were torn apart, the covers used to make footwear. The Tigris River, on which Baghdad rested, reportedly ran black from the ink; the pile of debris from destroyed books was so massive that it looked like a bridge over the river.

This library’s destruction was not mindless or random. The Mongol Empire consciously used terror as a tactic of subjugation. It was not enough for them to defeat their enemy. They sought to shatter any thought or idea of resistance among those they conquered. Their aim was to destroy the source of any pride that might fan itself into resistance to their rule.

And it worked. The destruction of the House of Wisdom marked the end of the Caliphate and what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. The resulting “Pax Mongolica” led to stability across Asia, revitalizing trade and the Silk Route for generations. But it was a peace forged by breaking the will of the conquered and the destruction of their histories.

The Mongol Empire was hardly the only power to target literature as a means of shattering collective identity. In the 1930s, the Nazis destroyed the writings of those they deemed to be degenerate and inferior. Castigating those deemed “un-German,” they attacked anything they considered a threat to the nationalistic project of the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts were gathered and publicly burned alongside state-mandated celebrations of the burnings. This targeting of Jewish authors and scholars, socialists, and other “undesirables” was a major precursor to the Holocaust.

More recently, in 2013, thousands of manuscripts in Timbuktu’s Ahmad Babu Research Center were deliberately burned during fighting over the city. As Islamist insurgents were pushed out by French and Malian forces, they sought to burn as many documents as they could. To save them, NGOs and scholars were forced to evacuate hundreds of thousands of documents, relocating them to Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Read More: The Real History Behind Book Burning and Fahrenheit 451

Intentional damage is not, however, the only bane of historical records. For example, in India, the National Archives has long struggled with its mission to preserve records. Underfunding had led to decades of neglect and poor preservation, wreaking havoc. Precious records, some from the country’s founders and the pioneers of independence, have been lost to decay.

Digitization has been a powerful weapon in the battle against both intentional destruction and the neglect of records. It helped scholars preserve the records spirited from Timbuktu, while also allowing India to preserve materials suffering from the degradation of neglect. It enables users to access records from all over the world, helping them overcome the barriers of geography and costs of travel. Digitization can help us hold ourselves to account for the past, ensuring that we do not forget the victims and survivors of the Holocaust or the histories of the enslaved and how they shaped our society.

The hack at the British Library, however, exposes the vulnerabilities of digitization. It forces us to ask: what happens to our records if a cyberattack severs us from our digital records? Since the BL has physical (if somewhat outdated) catalogues, restoring access for scholars will not be an insurmountable task. It will also be monumentally expensive. So what happens if digitized collections that the United States, United Kingdom, or India have invested so much in are attacked in the same way? As with the BL, it could impede our access even to physical records by destroying digital catalogues and reference material. And repairing the damage could require resources that the institutions in question might not have.

Digitization has been a transformative tool for scholars and a valuable shield against the dangers that threaten paper-based historical records. But it is time to consider the vulnerabilities of digital repositories as well. Fires, theft, and physical neglect are no longer the only major threats archives face: now we must also add ransomware to the list.

T.C.A Achintya is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. Specializing in Legal History and the British Empire, he works on the history of legal professionals in the Empire and the ways in which they shaped modern law.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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