In August 1992, in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, nearly 2 million books went up in flames.
Fragile, 500-hundred-year-old pamphlets and vibrant Ottoman-era manuscripts disintegrated into ash as the building holding them, the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was shelled and burned. It was not the first act of cultural destruction by Serbian forces against other ethnic groups in the Balkans, and it certainly wasn’t the last: Over the next seven years, Serb nationalists led by dictator Slobodan Milosevic would wreak havoc across the Balkan region.
But burning the library and its contents was the act that drew András Riedlmayer into the Balkan conflict. And almost 30 years later Riedlmayer, a bibliographer at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library, knows more about the destruction of that region’s cultural heritage than almost anyone. He has testified against its perpetrators in nine different international trials and helped set a precedent of prosecuting this kind of destruction as a war crime.
“This is certainly not something I thought I’d be doing in my work as a librarian,” Riedlmayer said. “But if you really want to make a librarian mad, burn down a library.”
Riedlmayer has worked as the bibliographer in Islamic Art and Architecture at the Fine Arts Library since 1985. He has always been interested in the region of the former Ottoman Empire, which includes the Middle East as well as parts of Hungary, where Riedlmayer was born, and the Balkan Peninsula.