Information Destruction Through History

Loss of Knowledge

Information the most valuable commodity in the world. All human progress depends on the accumulation and preservation of information. When information is lost, human progress suffers. This infographic displays some of the most significant losses of information human civilization has suffered.

information destruction infographic

Throughout the ages, it has happened again and again. Whole libraries of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, bark codexes, and paper books have been destroyed by natural disasters, fire, and war.

The Royal Library of Alexandria, where the accumulated knowledge of ancient scientists, physicians, and philosophers was stored, was destroyed by fire. The destruction likely started during Caesar’s Civil War when Julius Caesar purposefully set his own ships ablaze, and many scholars believe the library suffered numerous other tragic fires throughout history.

More than 120,000 volumes written by classical Greek and Roman authors were lost when fire destroyed the library at Constantinople in 473A.D.. Virtually all of the codexes recording the history, beliefs and sciences of the Maya were intentionally destroyed by the Spanish as works of the devil. In World War II libraries containing millions of books were destroyed as strategic acts of war.

During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the 17,000 volumes of the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo were directly targeted, along with the National Museum and National Library. The Iraq War saw the destruction of more than 400,000 books in the Iraq National Library, including priceless records of the world’s first urban, literate civilization. On 9/11, 21 libraries inside the World Trade Center, the records of 3,000 to 4,000 active cases before the Securities and Exchange Commission, files belonging to the CIA and EEOC, U.S. trade documents dating back to the 1840s, the offices and archives of Helen Keller International, $100,000,000 in privately owned artworks, thousands of photo negatives of JFK and more than 900,000 archeological artifacts were all lost.*

In our estimate the equivalent of 34,524.8GB of information created by humans that we can quantify within reasonable certainty has been destroyed throughout our history. We reached this figure by using data from the Amazon Kindle 3 which claims to hold 3,500 books per 4GB.

There are many well-known accounts of destroyed libraries and houses of information that we were unable to include in this figure due to a lack of reputable sources on the amounts of information destroyed. Those instances include The Library of Antioch in 363B.C., The Royal Library of Ashurbanupa in 600 B.C., Imperial Library of Ctesiphon in  754 A.D., The Library at Nalanda University in 1193 A.D., and the House of Wisdom in 1258 A.D.

As most information today is stored as electronic data, it’s not as vulnerable to fire but very vulnerable to new threats. Today’s data is vulnerable to being stolen, destroyed or compromised by disgruntled employees, competitors, terrorists, criminals, and malicious hackers. Fortunately, though, electronic data can be copied, encrypted, backed-up and stored in multiple locations, as it is being created, far easier than copying scrolls by candlelight with a quill pen, and more easily retrieved and restored in case of a disaster.

And the data destruction continues.


  1. Javi Sorribes

    And… what about the closing of Megaupload? How many GB of info did we lose?

  2. Balkan

    Nice infographic, but…

    What about the destruction of the Grand Library of Baghdad in 1258 by the mongols led by Hulagu? Is it posible to estimate the amount of the lost information?

    What about the information lost due to the air raids on Japan in WW2, or due to the warfare in the USSR in the same period?

  3. Daniel

    Reeally intereting, and sad

  4. Bret

    Is the number of books destroyed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution known?

  5. Chris

    This doesn’t fairly represent information ‘lost’ or ‘destroyed’, as much of it – with the exception of those scenarios that happened before Gutenberg was on the scene – would have been duplicated elsewhere, and will still be available to humanity today. Not that this diminishes much from the tragedy of cultural destruction, of course…

  6. Bob

    While this is terrible for mankind as a whole, just keep in mind that the greater the influence that these events had on modern society, the less likely you are to be alive at this moment.

  7. NewMexicoKid

    This is an interesting infographic; however, it is a little misleading to show the information loss in terms of absolute # books and amount of data; many of the books in libraries in the modern age have copies in other libraries. This was much less true in antiquity (before the invention of the printing press). It would be interesting to see in this infographic the ratio of information lost in the event to the total information in the world at that time; i.e., the loss of the library at Alexandria when it occurred is likely a much higher spike than more recent library losses.

  8. Rodger

    Is the information really “lost” if I burn down a library but the information (books, data, whatever) exists in another place?

    When the 417,000 book in the Iraqi National Library burned how many were one of a kind books with no copy (physical or digital) somewhere else?

  9. Req Name

    missed – Nalanda … around 1000 BC I guess …

    • REQ NAME

      correction – around 1000 AD ..

  10. Travis Horine

    I’m sure some information has been lost during these events and others but quantifying it would seem to me a highly suspect task. Even knowing the number of books, scrolls, whatever lost does not tell us how much true information was lost. Most true information is duplicated across authors and truth has a way of being preserved or rediscovered over time. At best we can only say lots of data has been lost but information and data are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, most data is misinforming and should be destroyed to avoid confusion with true information.

  11. Jen

    I would have liked to have visited the Imerpial Library of Constantinople

  12. Warren

    Unfortunately, although information is increasingly digital these days, the ability to easily change existing information without leaving a single trace of what immediately preceded it. How much have we already lost in the previous decade that we will never be able to get back?

  13. Addy

    How you made the account for know the number of the lost codices or books? During the WW2 many libraries was bombarding, and many copies from the same title were destroyed. Was this separately the account or is in the same quantification?

  14. Rami Tarawneh

    Actually the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Iraq, was the largest repository of books ever destroyed. Along with all other libraries in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was destroyed by the army of Hulagu during the Siege of Baghdad in 1258. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rescued about 400,000 manuscripts which he took to Maragheh before the siege.

  15. Tom Rohrig

    These are excellent comments! Yes, a lot of this material was duplicated elsewhere but there is still a large amount that was unique or rare. I learned a lot about the many libraries lost that I wasn’t aware of. I hope that efforts to quantify/identify this information continue as this type of loss continues to happen and work to stop/preserve information need to continue unabated.


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