Monthly Archives: January 2013

In 1995 the recently-established University of Western Sydney received a generous donation of 40,000 books from the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library, intended for the new university’s library at its Campbelltown campus.

At the time, the perpetually cash-strapped UWS was suffering from a particularly severe funding deficit, and no money could be allocated to catalogue the donation; nor was there sufficient space to store the books while more funding was sought. Administrators explored a number of possible solutions, including selling or pulping the books, before arriving at what they felt was the most economically rational decision: 10,000 of the books were secretly buried under the campus (Marks 2001).


The UWS library

Amazingly, the university seems to have been able to keep this interment secret for almost five years. Attempts by students to recover the books revealed that they had been damaged beyond repair, but that amongst the thousands buried on the campus were rare first editions and books which the students, in the absence of sufficient library resources, had been forced to find off campus – including, ironically, in the Fisher Library itself.

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald – quoted in a New South Wales parliamentary debate about the university – used the story as an example of economic rationalism gone mad, stating that “The ghosts of 10,000 buried books haunt the University” (Knox 2001). Amidst criticism from students, who compared the book burial to food discarded by corporations while millions starve, UWS officials initially claimed that they had no other option, before finally admitting that it had been a “thoughtless act” and would not happen again (Marks 2001).


Knox, M. 2001. The university of hard knocks. Sydney Morning Herald 8 July.

Marks, K. 2001. Cash-hit university buried old books to save room. The Independent 22 March.

In the news  – people in Mali burying their family’s collections of ancient manuscripts in the desert to prevent their destruction by Islamist insurgents, after fighting in the area had apparently affected the Ahmed Baba Institute library of Timbuktu manuscripts.


Part of a TImbuktu Manuscript on astronomy

The Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research in Timbuktu holds tens of thousands of historic manuscripts dating back to the late 13th Century, from the period when Timbuktu was a major trading settlement and centre of scholarship.  Ironically many of the manuscripts in the library had survived for centuries buried in the sand or hidden in caves.  It isn’t yet clear how many manuscripts have been destroyed or stolen.

An unknown number of the historic Timbuktu Manuscripts – possibly hundreds of thousands –  remain in private collections held by Malian families.  Some of these manuscripts are being buried in the desert for safekeeping: hopefully they’ll all be recovered soon.

H/T John Giblin

One of the most fascinating characters in the history of books is the sixteenth century polymath and occultist John Dee (1527 – c.1609). Dee’s studies, from his student years in Cambridge and Leuven to his later life as advisor to Elizabeth I and Rudolf II of Bohemia, ranged across astronomy, mathematics, cartography, antiquarianism, cabala, astrology, necromancy and alchemy.


John Dee

In the heart of the English renaissance Dee’s work straddled magic and science at a time when the two were only just beginning to be regarded as distinct fields of endeavour. Dee’s association with the history of the book in England is beyond doubt, but his identification as a burier of books is more contested, based on rumour and misunderstanding.

At the core of Dee’s scholarship was his extraordinary library of books and manuscripts, the largest private collection that had ever existed in England at the time (Sherman 1995). The scholarly value of Dee’s library was amplified by his willingness to welcome scholars from across Europe to study his collection, and his enthusiastic annotations shed light on his perceptions and understandings of the texts themselves. Frances Yates opined that “The whole Renaissance is in this library” (quoted in Roberts 2001: 15).

In 1556 Dee appealed to Queen Mary for the established of a national library, aimed in part at repairing the damage done to English scholarship by the dissolution of the monasteries. Together with Bishop Bonner he proposed that this library would seek to rescue old books as well as acquire new ones either by purchase or by commissioning copies of books and manuscripts held in the better-equipped libraries across Europe. This proposal was rejected, and Dee focused his attention on his own collection.

In 1583 Dee and his collaborator Edward Kelley left England for Poland, beginning a six year period of peripatetic wanderings around central Europe including time in the court of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. He returned to England in 1589 to find his library and laboratories ransacked and many hundreds of his books stolen. Ironically the stolen books – many of them identifiable due to their heavy annotation – form the largest part of Dee’s library to have survived into the present (Sherman 1995).

Dee’s reputation as a burier of books, aside from doubtful references in magical texts to his having buried chests of books in his garden, rests on the volume published by Meric Casaubon in 1659 entitled A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers Between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits […]. In his introduction to the book, largely made up of Dee’s records of his conversations with angels, Casaubon sought to explain the survival of the manuscript and, conversely, the loss of other parts of Dee’s papers:

How this hath happened, I cannot tell certainly; what I guess, is this, some years after Dr Dee’s death (  ) Sir Robert Cotton bought his library (what then remained of it) with his Magical Table, (of which afterwards) and the Original Manuscript, written with his own hand, whereof this is a Copy: The Book had been buried in the Earth, how long, years or months, I know not; but so long, though it was carefully kept since, yet it retained so much of the Earth, that it began to moulder and perish some years ago, which when Sir Thomas C. (before mentioned) observed, he was at the charges to have it written out, before it should be too late […] it may be, that since his death, the rest (the place where they lay being unknown) might rot in the earth (Casaubon 1659: 47)


Sir Robert Cotton, alleged digger-up of Dee’s books

John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, a collection of biographical snippets written between 1669 and 1693, includes an account of Dee, and includes the following rather cryptic line:

Meredith Lloyd sayes that John Dee’s printed booke of Spirits, is not above the third part of what was writt, which were in Sir Robert Cotton’s Library; many whereof were much perished by being buryed, and Sir Robert Cotton bought the field to digge after it. (Aubrey 1898: 212)

Donald Tyson in his Enochian Magic for Beginners (1998) expresses doubt about the rather romantic idea of Dee’s books being buried and dug up, suggesting that the mould on the manuscript was the result of poor storage at some point in its long life. However he admits that the contents of the papers were so potentially controversial that it is not impossible that either Dee or his son buried them for secrecy.


Aubrey, J. 1898. “Brief Lives”, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Casaubon, M. 1659. A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee (a mathematician of great fame in Q. Eliz. and King James their reignes) and some spirits: tending (had it succeeded) to a general alteration of most states and kingdomes in the world: his private conferences with Rodolphe Emperor of Germany, Stephen K. of Poland, and divers other princes about it: the particulars of his cause, as it was agitated in the Emperors court, by the Pope’s intervention: his banishment and restoration in part: as also the letters of sundry great men and princes (some whereof were present at some of these conferences and apparitions of spirits) to the said D. Dee: out of the original copy, written with Dr. Dees own hand, kept in the library of Sir Tho. Cotton, Kt. Baronet: with a preface confirming the reality (as to the point of spirits) of this relation, and shewing the several good uses that a sober Christian may make of all. London.

Roberts, J. 1992. Editorial preface. In Renaissance Man: The Reconstructed Libraries of European Scholars, 1450-1700. Series One: The Books and Manuscripts of John Dee, 1527-1608. Part 3: John Dee’s Manuscripts and Annotated Books from Cambridge University Library. A Listing and Guide to the Microfilm Collection. Marlborough: Adam Matthew Publications, 7-9.

Sherman, W.H. 1995. John Dee: the politics of reading and writing in the English renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Tyson, D. 1998. Enochian Magic for Beginners: the Original System of Angel Magic. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.

What does it mean to bury a book in the ground? What books are buried, where, by whom, and why? Books are second only to human bodies as objects of reverence and fascination: to think about books as artefacts involves peeling back layer after layer of meaning and significance.

The places for books are governed by long-established conventions: they belong in libraries, shops, homes and (for some of us) workplaces. Within these spaces they belong on horizontal shelves, stacked in rows, standing on their ends, with their spines facing outwards.

books untidy

Untidy row of books.

Given how vulnerable books are to damage, moisture and fire it can feel almost painful to find them stored in damp places, stacked in heaps, or otherwise treated carelessly. The fact that books are such fundamentally domestic objects, associated with orderly, dry, indoor space, makes the burial of books in the cold wet earth a fascinating and disturbing idea.

My aim in this site is to examine the motives, meanings, contexts and consequences of burying books in the ground. These accounts of book burying are drawn from history, literature, art and archaeology.  They illustrate the point that in burial (as in every other context) a book is never just a book.

It is hard to define exactly what a book is (and is not), but I prefer to treat it as an open and inclusive category that includes the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Fifty Shades of Grey alongside the Gutenberg Bible, the Yellow Pages and The Satanic Verses.


Old books

Burying books is not a particularly uncommon or new idea, nor is digging them up. The motivations for the burial of books, illuminated in the case studies below, include destruction, preservation, concealment and sacrifice.

According to Islamic tradition and the writings of Ibn Abbaas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, holy or magical books were buried under the throne of the Prophet Sulaiman.  There are different interpretations of this: in some accounts the books were holy texts buried by Sulaiman and dug up and defaced by demons or Shayatin.

solomon and a book

Solomon/Sulaiman and a book

In other accounts the books were buried by the Shayatin to discredit Sulaiman: “they wrote down books of black magic and blasphemy which they buried underneath the throne of Sulaiman. After Sulaiman’s death, they uncovered these books and said to the people: Verily, Sulaiman used to prevail with the help of these books.” (Ibn Katheer 2001: 17-18)

During his imprisonment on Robben Island in the 1970s Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, which was copied and smuggled out of the prison by friends. The original manuscript was hidden inside empty cocoa jars and buried in the prison courtyard: Mandela describes how he and his comrades surreptitiously dug the pit with iron spikes.

The manuscript was hidden for barely two weeks before they were uncovered during building works in the prison, and as punishment Mandela and his comrades were deprived of their study privileges for four years (Mandela 1994: 464-6). These two accounts – set thousands of years apart – illustrate one of the common themes in book burial: the need to conceal dangerous and powerful books.

While burying books is a rare and poorly-recorded practice, burning books has been an important theme throughout history. It has occurred as censorship, repression and accident from the time of Pompeii and the Library of Alexandria to the Spanish Inquisition and the Third Reich.

nazi book burning

Nazi book-burning, 1933

The term ‘libricide’ implies that the destruction of books is analogous to murder; in fact the annihilation of libraries has often been a part of genocide and ethnic cleansing from the Albigensian Crusade to the Chinese occupation of Tibet (Knuth 2003). In recent years the deliberate, accidental or even alleged destruction of copies of the Koran has led to lynchings, criminal prosecutions and violent protests around the world (BBC 2010).

In this era of environmental consciousness, the mass destruction of books – for legal, logistical or economic reasons – is typically carried out by pulping; the recycling of paper into cardboard or similar materials. For tax reasons, booksellers’ surplus stock is often returned to publishers with the covers torn off, while publishers will often dispose of unsellable books to save storage costs. The books are dissolved into a milky pulp and reformed into paper products.

The more high-profile book pulpings occur when a publisher or author is sued for libel or accused of plagiarism. For example, in 2007 Cambridge University Press pulped several thousand unsold copies of the book Alms for Jihad (Burr and Collins 2006) after the mere threat of a libel case by businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz (Jones 2007).

Pulping and burning are methods of mass-destruction, but burying books is less final, and tends to take place on a much smaller scale (although there are exceptions). The accounts of book burying that I’ll be posting here serve to illustrate the extraordinary life histories of books and libraries and the rich array of cultural, religious, political, artistic and intellectual themes that they illuminate.


BBC. 2010. Men arrested in Gateshead over suspected Koran burning.

Burr, J.M. and R.O. Collins. 2006. Alms for Jihad: charity and terrorism in the Islamic world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ibn Katheer. 2001. Stories of the Qur’an. El Mansoura: Dar Al-Manarah.

Jones, P. 2007. US libraries hold on to pulped book. The Bookseller

Knuth, R. 2003. Libricide: the Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Mandela, N. 1994. Long walk to freedom: the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. London: Little, Brown.