Graffiti on the walls of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg during the #FeesMustFall protests. Picture: SOWETAN
Graffiti on the walls of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg during the #FeesMustFall protests. Picture: SOWETAN

Long before the free-for-all of the Internet’s vast troves of information, and long before Wikipedia, the library was humanity’s memory.

It was where we kept our data and where millennia of scholars stored our collective wisdom.

Libraries are to civilisation what books are to people: sources of information, of inspiration, of learning. Collectively, like books, they are the hard drives of our experience and knowledge.

Libraries have always been a kind of sanctuary for me and millions of other students. Trite as it sounds, the pursuit of knowledge was a library’s prime reason for being.

When I was a university student, it was where reference works, background material and fascinating studies were stored. Everything the hungry mind of a student could ever want was in a library.

When I was in school, it was the only place you could find encyclopaedias and illustrated textbooks.

I was one of those children labelled a bookworm; I read my way through school. I first got glasses a few months before the end of primary school, so I wasn’t aware that the teacher’s notes on the blackboard were a relevant part of the lesson. I mostly educated myself by reading.

I’ve always loved the stillness of libraries. They have a silent depth of knowledge that the shelves of books imply. I loved working there when I was at varsity, reading tomes that weren’t available anywhere else. These books and academic journals still cost a small fortune for universities to maintain.

Now, we can work anywhere. Libraries have been replaced by coffee shops as work venues. The shelves of books have been replaced by Wikipedia, by Khan Academy, by Coursera and all the other free online education resources.

But the library’s central role as the repository of human knowledge remains as true now as it was 20 years ago, or several hundred years ago. A library is more than just the sum of its many, many books. It represents how humanity — this tiny group of organisms on a little rock orbiting a distant star on the far end of the Milky Way — has achieved so much.

Gone are the vagaries of an oral tradition, the possibility of our history or miraculous discoveries being forgotten. Our libraries — and now the Internet, perhaps — are our living memory. Even in this digital age, libraries are still a special place.

This is why I find so pitiably destructive the latest evolution of the #FeesMustFall movement — or, as Justice Malala says, "a small, radical, violent elite [that] is intimidating everyone else into silence".

How can students, who aspire to be educated, behave with such criminal vandalism by burning libraries?

The moment this movement — which once had broad backing from society — degenerated into criminality by burning buildings and facilities, it lost its legitimacy and its honour.

In history the people who have burnt books were the Nazis, Pol Pot’s murderous Year Zero zealots and repressive regimes that wanted to subdue intelligent thought or prevent people from questioning.

How can a movement that demands education for all — free or otherwise — not see the painful irony of its destructive behaviour? How can students who demand they be given an education gleefully burn the actual books they should be studying?

Forget arguments that this is the movement’s only form of protest. If you aspire to be educated, then you need to behave with greater responsibility than to burn down the symbol of that education — the library — or any other academic building, for that matter.

Educated people should be aware that such violence steals the money intended for maintaining a library or paying tuition fees, and that it wastes it on private security and replacing what was lost in the fire.

It’s a crying shame that those who want to be educated are behaving so ignorantly and so dishonourably.

Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @shapshak

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