Save and Burn, a Film Review

There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 1940 “Ueber den Begriff der Geschichte”, used at the beginning of this film

Julian Samuel, a Montreal-based filmmaker born in Pakistan, continues his exploration of the contemporary world of libraries in “Save and Burn”, an 80-minute documentary. He first investigated libraries in his instant library classic, “The Library in Crisis.” Here is the description from the distributor’s website Filmakers Library

Dense with the informed commentary of notable scholars, this documentary in effect traces the history of civilization through the phenomenon of the library. From ancient China, India, Islam, and the Graeco Roman world, we see how the library radiated knowledge and spiritual values, and facilitated the cross fertilization of ideas from one culture to another.

“Crisis” was made before 9/11 and focuses on the hottest crises at that time the effects the WTO may have on libraries, the commercialization of libraries, mindless weeding and closing of libraries, expansion of copyright by computer corporations, and much more. No film I have ever seen on libraries comes close in exploring so much in such a short period of time 46 minutes.

I contacted the filmmaker in Canada, and sent him videotapes of interviews with leading American library activist Sanford Berman. Originally, he was going to interview Sandy and other American library leaders, but after the draconian war against people from Pakistan and other East Asian countries by the Bush Administration after 9/11, Samuel took the official Canadian advice to NOT cross the border. Thus this film did not include these voices but rather focused on Irish and English libraries plus the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Unlike “The Library in Crisis,” this film looks at race and class. Various library historians including John Feather, Professor of Library & Information Studies, Loughborough University, author of “The Information Society,” Royal Society of Arts, London and Alistair Black, Professor of Library History, Leeds Metropolitan University, London discuss how public libraries were used both to stop the locals from contemplating revolution a la Russian Communism during and after WWI and to serve as a place for debate. By cutting back and forth from Irish and English library events to the history of the Library of Alexandria, Egyptian public libraries, and current programs in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, like one on unemployment and youth, the viewer is counter-conditioned to reject Western racism. Samuel wants to show the West that we are the inheritors of the great Arab-Asian tradition of libraries going back thousands of years not its enemy.

The facts are piled on, not using the standard Ken Burns-style of slow discourse, but rather throwing the facts at us, using optical printing, aiming to create a much more complicated GESTALT in our minds. This is extremely refreshing to someone who has watched a thousand such films, and found them boring. His style is more like the Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai or Godard, demanding that the viewer has a universe of images already in his mind, waiting for someone to link them together in new ways.

Like all serious intellectuals, Samuel begins with Walter Benjamin, the cornerstone of post-WWII global analysis. By doing this he shows right from the beginning that he is not guilty of ant-Semitism and Arab fanaticism. He shows that he really wants truth and justice, at whatever cost. He wants to show that libraries have been one of the few places of truth and justice for a long time, and that there are really only two kinds of people those who respect such sacred places and those who do not.

The visual images of the libraries he shows are exquisite, lingering on the walls, the books, the people, and the spaces that libraries have used over the centuries. He is a painter, an artist as well as a philosopher, historian, and freedom fighter. Ambassador Taher Khalifa, Director of The Bibliotheca Alexandrina talks about the shapes of the library using an incomplete sun disk, the earth, a moon, the sea, and alphabets from all over the world, none making a single sentence.

I found one scene particularly positive, given the ocean of negative images flooding us now. A young Arab man reads from “Dubliners” in front of the James Joyce Wall in Dublin -in his native tongue. This brief scene may be the clearest direct message Samuel is trying to make we are all one people, friends, not enemies.

This film notes a key historical possibility that I very much believe in and that is that if the great world of the original Alexandrine Library had been allowed to continue, our world would have been much better, and mankind would have landed on the moon by 1000 AD. There is a new field of alternative histories, including Philip Roth’s new book, “The Plot Against America,” about a US with a Nazi Charles Lindbergh as president. Samuel has a text crawl that states that there was one other time when there was a possibility of a “brilliant scientific civilization” the 700 years of the first Alexandrine Library under the Greeks, and he notes that most of the Old Testament comes to us from items once found in that library. Apparently he believes, as I do, that if mankind had channeled its energy into the arts and sciences rather than war at the time of the world’s greatest library, our world would now be a humanistic paradise rather than a toxic corporate American hell.

During the last half of the film he interviews Tom Twiss, Government Information Librarian, University of Pittsburgh, who has flown to Canada for the interview. During the next 30 minutes Twiss discusses the war against people’s access to federal government information, pointing out that as our government has limited our access to them, they have increased their access to us library patrons- under the Patriot Act. Twiss is also an expert on the destruction of Palestinian libraries. He talks about what happened to Palestinian libraries during an Israeli invasion of the West Bank. He points out that Lutheran libraries were also attacked without any reaction worldwide but that there is ample proof of the events. He notes that some Israeli newspapers even ran editorials about the “cultural cleansing” but many Israelis deny it even happened. One gruesome story he gives is about the Israelis taking books ordered by Palestinian libraries being shipped to Palestinian libraries being seized and shipped to Israeli libraries instead.

Another expert on the reality of libraries in Palestine is Erling Bergan, Editor, Librarians Union of Norway, Oslo, who talks about the destruction of their libraries, and a tour by international librarians to these libraries, seeing first hand how much the children use them. He discusses one particular act of destruction involving The Orient House. Bergan is like one of the thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors one has seen in films about Nazi Germany. (I have programmed the local Jewish film series for 25 years), shaking his head in disbelief. Sanford Berman is the inventor of a word that should have been uttered bibliocide. ( Ian McLachlan uses this word in Samuel’s earlier film, “The Library in Crisis.) Some librarians even use the term “biblio-holocaust” for the destruction of books in our modern age.

Finally, the destruction of Iraqi libraries is discussed, mainly by Ross Shimmon, Secretary General, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and Isam al Khafaji, ex-advisor to USA forces in Iraq. Khafaji discusses who destroyed the books, and how important they still are in the life of war-worn Iraqis. Shimmon talks about writing letters to Saddam and Blair requesting that they protect Iraqi libraries during the coming war.

The final comments in the film are by Khafaji. Earlier in the film pictures of Iraqi libraries that have been burned are shown, giving the viewer the reason why this film is called “Save and Burn.” It’s horrific to see the rooms of ashes, and reflect on the eternal loss the millions of Iraqis have endured as pawns in the game between the Arab fanatics and the America extremists now in control. I had to recall the ashes from “The Day After,” showing a world incinerated by men of equal sadism.

Samuel has again created a masterpiece about the contemporary library. I suggest that it be included with the many Arab Film Festivals that have been created by thoughtful people around the world since 9/11. As always, non-Arabs and Arabs will discover that they have much more in common than they realize and that they are brothers and sisters, not enemies. All librarians should see this film, and I am sure they will feel like I do that librarians must leave their beautiful houses of culture, and join the fight to protect them from the despots East and West who will eventually destroy them. One librarian talks about how the Book of Kells was protected from the invading English, being moved from site to site, even in a building used by the invaders as a headquarters.

A very good companion book to read is Matthew Battles recent, “Libraries -An Unquiet History.” I read it two summers ago on a porch near Wilmington, North Carolina, smoking and sitting under a semi-functioning ceiling fan with my dog. I took my time and savored the amazing history Mr. Battles has written, taking a global perspective somewhat akin to Mr. Samuel’s. I was very impressed with his brief history of libraries in China and England, and consider his account of the war against my friend Sanford Berman to be the best in any book I have read so far.

There is a brief discussion of “libricide” in this film and now there is an excellent book on the subject and now there is an excellent book on the subject “Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century” by Rebecca Knuth. It looks at five particular cases – Germany, Bosnia, Kuwait, China and Tibet. Of course it doesn,t mention the uncontrolled “weeding” of American libraries during the last decade, most famously in San Francisco where thousands of books were buried in a landfill.

Read together, “An Unquiet History” and “Libricide,”” along with “Save and Burn” would make an excellent introduction for beginning MLS students anywhere in the world. Or as a “Continuing Education” course for working MLS librarians. Hopefully I will be able to show “Save and Burn” at the spring West Virginia Library Association conference in April 2005.

To obtain a copy of “Burn and Save,” e-mail the director, Julian Samuel, at:

You can obtain “The Library in Crisis” at Filmakers Library –

Save and Burn; 80:34, NTSC; 2004

The Library in Crisis; 46:41; NTSC; 2002.

List of people interviewed

Ross Shimmon, Secretary General, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions;

Isam al Khafaji, ex-advisor to USA forces in Iraq;

(Holland) Ambassador Taher Khalifa, Director, Bibliotheca Alexandria;

Dr Youseff Zeidan, Head of manuscripts department, Alexandria;

Dr Hesham Abd El Moshen, Head of architectual department, Alexandria;

Robin Adams, Librarian and College Archivist, Trinity College, Dublin;

Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts, Trinity College;

Charles Benson, Keeper of Early Printed Books and Special Collections, Trinity College;

Ken Monahan, Director, James Joyce Center, Dublin;

Michael Ryan, Director, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin;

Declan Kiberd, author, Inventing Ireland, University of Dublin;

David Grattan, Manager, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa;

Paul Bégan, Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa;

John Feather, Professor of Library & Information Studies, Loughborough University, author of The Information Society, Royal Society of Arts, London;

Alistair Black, Professor of Library History, Leeds Metropolitan University, London;

Erling Bergan, Editor, Librarians Union of Norway, Olso; Peter Hoare, library historian and adviser on historic libraries, Bromley House Library, Nottingham;

Tom Twiss, Government Information Librarian, University of Pittsburgh.

STEVE FESENMAIER is the film reviewer for Graffiti magazine, the largest monthly in West Virginia. He was director of The West Virginia Library Commission Film Services 1978-1999, receiving his Masters of Library Science in 1979. He was previously the chairman of the University Film Society, University of Minnesota, 1972-78. He is the co-founder of the West Virginia International Film Festival (1984), The West Virginia Filmmakers Film Festival, (2001) and the WV Filmmakers Guild (1979). He has worked on many films including John Sayles, “Matewan”(1987) and presented a week of films made in WV in March 2004 at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in NYC. He is the associate producer of an indie feature film, “Correct Change”(2002) and the executive producer for “Green Bank The Center of the Universe.” He provided research information for Mr. Samuel.

He can be reached at: