Ancient Archives, Modern Libraries, and Star Wars: Rogue One

By Gabriel McKee

Despite the movies’ opening assertion that it was "a long time ago,” the world of Star Wars would seem to have little to do with antiquity. And so I was surprised to find significant overlap between the most recent film in the franchise, Rogue One, and the world of libraries, both ancient and modern. Fair warning: spoilers for Rogue One abound ahead.

Rogue One tells a story that takes place immediately before the original Star Wars, detailing how the Rebel Alliance obtained the plans to the Galactic Empire’s super-weapon, the planet-destroying Death Star. The movie’s eponymous squadron is an ad hoc team of commandos who, in the film’s climactic sequence, infiltrate the imperial stronghold on the planet Scarif and make off with the secret plans that will enable Luke Skywalker to destroy the Empire’s ultimate weapon.

It’s worth noting that Scarif is not just an Imperial base, but is also the government’s archive: the final battle of Rogue One takes place in, around, and over a library. The spire of Scarif’s central structure is a silo in which information cartridges are stored, accessible through a robotic retrieval system. The collection seems to be poorly cataloged for a culture that has invented the hyperdrive—the Rebels essentially need to guess the title of the file they’re trying to locate. It’s possible that the Imperial officer that the Rebel robot K-2SO knocks unconscious upon entering the spire is an archivist, who presumably would have access to a finding aid for the collection. (Granted, the cataloging of classified military documents is dicey territory, but if the Defense Technical Information Center can establish guidelines for the US Department of Defense, it is hard to imagine that this is beyond the organizational powers of Emperor Palpatine.)

The Imperial Archive on Scarif in 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.'Aside from its poor search interface, the Imperial archive’s retrieval system—a robotic arm that travels around the storage column to retrieve information cartridges—is actually not too different from the storage and retrieval systems used in many libraries. Facilities like Columbia and Princeton’s ReCAP have 30-foot tall shelves, and use a forklift to retrieve bins of books. Some libraries use a robotic retrieval system to surface items in storage, as seen here in videos from Macquarie University and the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University.

Unless you happen to be one those humans who doesn't know what happened in the first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope), it will come as no surprise that the rebels ultimately succeed in retrieving the Death Star plans. Far more surprising is the reaction of the Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin, to the attack on the Imperial archive: he fires the Death Star’s main cannon on the planet, destroying the library entirely (and a sizable chunk of the planet along with it). The destruction of the Imperial archive raises lots of interesting questions: Did the Empire have a data backup plan? What else was stored there, and was any of that data backed up elsewhere? Did Tarkin have authorization to, for lack of a better word, deaccession the entire archive? And could anything of Scarif’s archive have survived such apocalyptic weeding? Is this where the story of Star Wars merges with that of Mr. Robot, with the Empire to suffer the fate of E Corp?

Many historical libraries have faced greater and lesser degrees of destruction. The best-known example is surely the Library of Alexandria, which is famous primarily for being destroyed (though there is no unambiguous historical account of its burning). The alleged fire has been blamed on a host of culprits, from Julius Caesar, to one of several third-century Roman emperors, Christian monks of the fourth century, and the seventh-century military commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who led the Muslim conquest of Egypt. In his essay “Alexandria, Library of Dreams,” ISAW’s founding director Roger Bagnall identifies another possible culprit—the “slow fire” of gradual deterioration. True, the famed library of Alexandria did not survive, but in fact no papyri from antiquity could have survive the passage of centuries in the humid climate of Alexandria even if the Library itself had.

Alexandria aside, other destroyed libraries and abandoned archives have proven resilient sources of information. The library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum survives because it was destroyed: the papyrus scrolls, which would otherwise have fallen prey to the “slow fire” of deterioration and decay, were carbonized by the fires of Vesuvius. It has been theorized that the clay cuneiform tablets in Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh were baked into a more durable form by the fire that destroyed the royal palace in 612 BCE. A fire may also have preserved at least one of the Hittite archives at Hattusa, the clay walls of which were hardened into stone by fire when the city fell in around 1200 BCE, providing greater protection for its fragile contents.

The immediate spectre raised by the destruction of Scarif in Rogue One is that of book-burning. Authoritarian regimes rely on the ability to reshape, reinterpret, and if necessary obliterate the historical record. This assertion is at the core of one of the most famous works of modern science fiction, George Orwell’s 1984, whose protagonist is employed by the Ministry of Truth, a news/propaganda agency that also serves as an anti-archive, consigning all of its documents to incinerators. Though less spectacular than the destruction of the Imperial archive in Rogue One, the daily act of propagandists depositing the records of their activity in destructive “memory holes” serves the same purpose: erasing history.

Ancient libraries can also serve as reminders of the importance of preserving history. In his essay on the Library of Alexandria, Prof. Bagnall concludes that the historical circumstances of the library’s demise—whether spectacular or “slow”—are ultimately unimportant. What matters more is the Library’s reminder that the preservation of history and culture must be undertaken actively and not passively:

We should turn our attention away from the dramatic single event and toward the forces and personalities that create and sustain cultural institutions, for it is their absence in the Roman period, not the presence of some destructive force, that decided the fate of the books of Alexandria. Why should anyone be disillusioned by the realization that creative achievements survive only if we foster a cultural milieu that values them?

For Ashurbanipal, the assembly of the royal library at Nineveh was an expression of imperial authority. Rogue One presents us with an authoritarian Empire that sees the need to destroy what it cannot keep secret. Today's libraries and other scholarly institutions are aware of the importance of free and open access to information. The modern library's mission of discovery, preservation, and communication is a bulwark against authoritarian regimes like that embodied by the Empire of the Star Wars saga.