Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war. In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (more widely remembered for his terracotta army in Xian) ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire. According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” Books of poetry, philosophy and history were specifically targeted, so that the new emperor couldn’t be compared to more virtuous or successful rulers of the past. Although the exact amount of information lost is unknown, Chan writes that the history genre suffered the greatest loss.
But for Rebecca Knuth, author of Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” Knuth says. Just look at one of the most famous examples of burning, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The famed building had its contents and structure burned during multiple periods of political upheaval, including in 48 B.C. when Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt and when Caliph Omar invaded Alexandria in 640 A.D.