'We Have a Library in Mind'
An Extraordinary Survival Exercise in a WWII Japanese Camp
- Lucy Alexander
15th November 2024
‘Anthony Smelt: Poll among internees at Lintang camp - titles for an imaginary library. 1943 ‘
The Imperial War Museum archived Anthony Smelt's personal papers because he spent three years of the Second World War interned in a camp in Borneo called Batu Lintang. He had been working as a civil servant in British North Borneo until the Japanese invaded at the beginning of 1942. During those years of captivity, he was an active member of the camp, documenting the diet of his fellow internees and contributing to various aspects of their lives. After he was liberated, he was awarded an OBE for his services during internment. At Batu Lintang, POWs and civilian internees alike endured food shortages, disease and sickness for which scant medicine was made available, forced labour, brutal treatment, and lack of adequate clothing and living quarters. Of the approximately 2,000 British POWs held there, over two-thirds died during or as a result of their captivity.
An additional cruelty was enforced boredom. The internees were not allowed to give each other lectures on topics according to their areas of expertise, and were allowed no books for most of their incarceration. What a dozen of the men did - all identified by the author from an encoded list in Anthony's papers - was to invent a magical library.
According to strict rules - so like the administrators, doctors and lawyers they were - a list of no fewer than 550 titles was recorded. 'The list should not include a) Technical Works b) Books of Reference c) Periodicals d) Modern Fiction, say after 1920 e) Works which are not available in the English Language.' With short biographies of the main protagonists, descriptions of what they had to endure and a concise examination of the 'library' itself, Lucy Alexander has revealed an astonishing exercise in mental survival under the most appalling circumstances. What would your books be?