A burning paradox

Cristian Ispir
2 min readDec 20, 2023

Many ancient and medieval libraries burned, not once, but several times. In fact, it is hard to find an ancient building which didn’t catch fire, at least once.

The famous Library of Alexandria burned at least 6 times. But, as scholars argue, it wasn’t fire which extinguished the flame of its literate beacon, it was institutional decline.

Books burn, but they burn slowly. Paper burns more quickly than papyrus, and paper more quickly than parchment. Yet the medium at highest risk is none of the above, it is digital.

It’s been over a month since the British Library was a victim of a vicious cyber attack which brought most of its services down and put tons of digital content at risk of extinction. Almost overnight, the millions of hours of digitisation work seemed to have vanished beyond trace. There were backup systems in place, and despite the library’s CEO assurance that ‘this kind of attack was something we had prepared for and rehearsed, and had taken steps to guard against’, the paradox remains: the most technologically advanced writing medium is also the one that is at the highest risk of instant and complete destruction.

The book burning fervor of old and recent generations has done little to obliterate the written capital of a culture. Natural disasters can hit, but most physical repositories remain relatively safe. Digital memory banks, however, need very little to be erased out of memory. A click, several lines of code, a power failure. It can all go dark in the blink of an eye.