Terror Has Not Withdrawn: Daily Life for Librarians in Iraq

Although it’s a year since the war officially ended, the struggle has just begun to rebuild Iraq’s cultural and educational institutions

November 28, 2012


“We forgot a long time ago what situation constitutes normal and what situation does not,” said Saad Eskander, director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, after almost a decade of war that followed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Since the American troop withdrawal last year, “life has not changed for the overwhelming majority of the population, especially for the poor. Senseless atrocities, indiscriminate destruction, and blind hatred are always there; they are part of our lives,” he said. ’

The American military formally ended its mission in Iraq last December 15. It was the inauspicious end of an invasion launched by the United States ostensibly to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, which were subsequently determined to be nonexistent. The war cost the lives of 4,287 service members, with another 30,182 wounded or maimed in action. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the conflict, although there are no firm civilian numbers available. US involvement has ended, but the war is far from over.

Located across the road from the main headquarters of the Iraqi army, the Iraq National Library and Archives and its 490 employees have been particularly vulnerable to insurgent attacks, which have increased steadily in 2012. June was the deadliest month, with some 200 people, mostly civilian pilgrims, reported killed, according to the September 14 New York Times.

“The continuous terrorist attacks often result in snarled traffic and even blocking the main road that leads to the National Library,” said Eskander. “These attacks also affect the lives of some of my staff . . . their sons, brothers, or sisters have been injured. The army headquarters was attacked twice viciously by terrorists in 2011. We were trapped, unable to evacuate our building for more than four hours.” According to Eskander, other institutions near the library were also attacked this year, such as the Shiite religious foundation’s headquarters, where 25 people were killed June 4.

As a result of these nearby attacks, the library has suffered some material damage—ceilings, windows, and doors were smashed. “Luckily, no one on my staff was harmed,” said Eskander. “From time to time, I receive intelligence reports that ask us to be vigilant, as the library might be attacked by car bombs.”

Iraqis face an acute political crisis, making it impossible to predict the impact on libraries and education in that nation. “Ethnic, religious, and even regional divisions have increased considerably since the withdrawal of US forces,” said Eskander. “Unfortunately, our political leaders have been busy mobilizing their communities against one another. A new civil war is around the corner if the different parties do not agree on a compromise that will satisfy a minimum of their demands.”

Eskander maintains that the library is the only national institution that is “always willing to assist, unconditionally, other educational or cultural organizations. We have built a good reputation throughout Iraq. We have representatives in every province whose task is to work closely with provincial cultural and educational institutions.”

Outside help?

Government officials made a bold announcement in April through Mawtani.com (a website “sponsored by the US Central Command in support of UN Security Council Resolution 1723”) that 21 new Iraqi government-sponsored libraries are planned throughout the provinces “to provide free services to students and researchers and seek to explain and promote the concept of the new democratic system in Iraq.” The optimistic announcement said that 22 billion dinars ($18.9 million US) had been allocated for the buildings and that double that number are planned for 2013. Unfortunately, American Libraries was not able to verify this report or confirm this project through its sources.

Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress, said that librarians from Iraq came to LC for training in 2006 once the World Digital Library Project was established. This was one of the most important contributions the Library of Congress made to the war recovery effort in Iraq. “They started working on projects that Saad Eskander and I had discussed,” said Deeb, “one of which was digitizing the first woman’s journal ever published in Iraq, Layla, 1923 to 1925. It’s unique and now available online at wdl.org.”

Google contributed $3 million to the development of the World Digital Library, Deeb noted, and that money was used to digitize newspapers and journals. LC training concentrated on how to assemble and operate the scanning equipment. “When the trainees returned to Baghdad, the Library of Congress sent the scanners in pieces. The librarians who were trained then knew how to put Humpty Dumpty together again,” Deeb said. “These machines are very sensitive, and despite the many environmental challenges in Iraq, they were able to work.”

In late 2011, two members of the National Library staff traveled to the British Library, where they took part in a three-month training course on sound restoration and digitization of audio materials. The project was funded by the British Council and the British Institutions for the Study of Iraq. The aim of the training was to enable staff to set up a digital sound archive as part of the larger Digital Library project so the National Library and Archives can preserve part of the nation’s intangible culture heritage, especially traditional Iraqi music.

The construction of the Digital Library building was scheduled to begin in 2012. Construction of the five-story facility by a Swedish firm is expected to take two years. It will house the IT department, digital sound and film libraries, and a digital archive, as well as a theater, restaurant, IT training rooms, and a large reading room. The aim to is “to provide all readers, inside and outside Iraq, free-of-charge access to digitized historical records, maps, photographs, rare books, and periodicals, as well as music and film collections via a special website,” said Eskander.

The state of collections

Primary, intermediate, and high school libraries have not been functioning throughout the course of the war, said Eskander. “Policymakers still think that they will win the war against terrorism by the mere use of force, not through spreading humanistic and tolerant cultural values. Our experience proves that progressive culture is vital to the winning of the war against terrorism.” Libraries, archives, and museums have a role to play in the formation of true national identity; an identity transcends religious, regional, and ethnic boundaries. A clear-cut and inclusive national identity is what Iraq has been lacking since the British left their mark on the country after World War I, Eskander said. “Unfortunately, no importance is attached to the role that the library can play in an emerging young democracy, or in a country where its social fabric is disintegrating rapidly.”

Abdul Hadi Al Khalili, cultural attaché at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., said it is important to acknowledge the many donations that have gone to Iraq libraries since 2008 in preparation for a democratic Iraq. He noted that the National Institutes of Health sent some $27 million in medical books and journals, hoping to start a medical library, which “unfortunately has not yet happened.” The Association of American Publishers donated 1,200 titles in 2008, Khalili added.

“I was involved with libraries in Iraq myself, both medical and general, and I think we got some improvement in the Iraq Virtual Science Library (IVSL), part of the World Digital Library Project,” Khalili said. “The US State Department and the Defense Department, along with other organizations, have set this up in the US, and it has now been handed over to Iraq.” Iraqi scientists, researchers, and engineers have endured decades of isolation from the international scientific community, but now through the IVSL they can access up-to-date scientific data and contribute to their nation’s reconstruction.

The Iraqi government recently formed an intergovernmental committee to look into the issue of the records seized by the US government. The committee is headed by the deputy minister of foreign affairs, and its members include representatives from the Ministry of Culture (including Eskander), the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers. The committee has formed a three-member team that will negotiate with the US government. Eskander is also a member of that negotiation team.

Unfortunately, said Eskander, since 2009 the National Library’s operating budget, with the exception of the line items for salaries, has been cut by 40%, even though the national budget has been going up annually. Yet amid the terror and turmoil, the library boasts a 35% increase in the size of the collection between early 2004 and mid-2012, with the archival collections growing by 25%; in 2012 alone it has acquired 100,000 books.

“This is due to the fact I managed to persuade some Iraqi political parties to hand over to us the library of the Baath Party’s training school,” Eskander said. The collection includes publications in Arabic, English, and French. Moreover, the library has doubled its photo collection, which now numbers around 20,000 items, and dozens of new maps have been added to the map collection. The stacks are bursting at the seams, which is one of the reasons Eskander has proposed another construction project to the ministry. “The aim is to construct a new storage building to meet our need for more storage space,” he said. “I hope I can implement this new project in mid or late 2013, if I am around.”

“An ongoing need”

“There is an ongoing need for books, for databases, for training,” said Deeb. “You have a young generation growing up that will require Iraq and the rest of the world community to provide the resources to enable them to catch up for the years that were lost to the war; this happens in wars.”

Because of the security situation, a decade’s worth of children were either not sent to school or were able to attend only sporadically, she said, “so they need to play catch-up, and everyone has to help them.” Deeb believes the United States and the United Nations should focus on the education and training of young Iraqis so they can find employment and help rebuild the country. “That to me is critical for the future of Iraq,” she said. “It is the basis without which nothing else is possible. Security and stability can be established only if all parties agree to a minimum of compromise.”

LEONARD KNIFFEL is a writer and librarian living in Chicago. He is former editor and publisher of American Libraries. His most recent book is Reading with the Stars: A Celebration of Books and Libraries (ALA Editions/Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). He can be reached at lkniffel[at]sbcglobal.net or at polishson.com.


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