Reflections from unit member Abderrezzaq Ghafsi on the 56th anniversary of Algiers’s University Library fire and on the burning of Dickens’s novels

As good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

― John Milton, Areopagitica

This blog post recounts the bombing of the Algerian library and the burning of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers and Bleak House in Algiers’s University Library 56 years ago. In 2015 the Algerian Newspaper El-Massa published a column entitled ‘The Burning of Algiers’s University Library: A Forgotten French Tragedy’ which described how, on 7th June 1962 at around 12:40 pm, three phosphorous bombs exploded, leading to a disastrous fire in the Library which destroyed about 600,000 rare transcripts and books. Many observers considered this event as a terrorist attack intended to destroy Algerians’ cultural memory. Some Algerian politicians attributed the fire to the French policy known in Algeria as ‘The Scorched Earth’. Others argued that the fire had been planned by a terrorist group known in Algerian history as OAS (French Secret Army Organisation). For more details, please click here.

The fire at Algiers’s University Library increases the challenge of tracking the reception history of Charles Dickens’s works in Algeria. In September 2016, I conducted fieldwork to look at the holdings of Dickens’s novels at Algiers University Library during colonial Algeria. The early novels the library held were in two languages: French and English. As a researcher in the publication history of Dickens in Algeria, I encountered many difficulties in locating the archives and pinning down the dates of the acquisition of the novels by the library. There are two main reasons for this. First, the systematic organization of archives in Algeria did not begin until the early twentieth century. Second, the huge fire in Algiers University Library shortly before Independence in 1962 meant that copies of The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House were included in the many volumes that were destroyed or partially burnt.

 The Burning of The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House at Algiers University Library in 1962

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