- The Paleontological Society
For most people, the destruction of books has universally come to be thought of as a symbol of barbarity (e.g., Eco 1983). The burning of the library in Louvain, Belgium, by the German army in 1914 was, for example, seen around the world not only as an act of terror but also as an act against posterity (Tuchman 1962). Nazi book-burning is a virtual icon of anti-intellectualism and social malignancy (Rose 2001). The 1992 destruction of the main library in Sarajevo, the Vijecnica, during the Balkan war (which took place 78 years to the day after the destruction of the library in Louvain) was seen by many as one of that conflict's most tragic incidents (see Riedlmayer 1996; Zeco 1996; Basbanes 2003). Even if we justifiably bemoan the anti-intellectualism of much of modern society, Western culture at its best cherishes books and libraries as symbols of civilization, humanity, and intellectual freedom.
It is therefore striking that we by and large do not see threats to other accumulations of knowledge and potential knowledge in the same way. Geoscience and natural history collections are frequently cited as among the largest and most valuable sources of information about the natural world, yet they are also frequently underfunded and undervalued, and cited as threatened, imperiled, or endangered (e.g., NRC 2002). Colleges and universities that would never think of discarding their libraries dispense with collections with few apparent reservations or repercussions.1 Collections that are retained are often squeezed into smaller spaces and/or tended by fewer staff with smaller budgets (NRC 2002).
The reasons for this situation are many and complex. At least in the case of fossil collections, however, one reason is that professional paleontologists themselves are not of one mind about exactly how valuable they are. Although no paleontologist would …