Iraq's Ruined Library Soldiers On


[posted online on April 9, 2008]

The brutalities of the Iraq war accumulate so 
fast it is difficult to keep track. But in this 
season of fifth-year anniversaries, one largely 
forgotten crime demands to be recalled, in part 
because it relates directly to the politics of 
memory itself. Five years ago this week, US 
troops stood by as looters sacked the Iraq 
National Library and Archives (INLA)--one of the 
oldest and most used in the world. In Arab 
countries the old expression was "Cairo writes, 
Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads."

American troops were under orders not to 
intervene. Library staff who requested protection 
from the GI's were told, "We are soldiers, not 
policemen" or "our orders do not extend to 
protecting this [building]." American military 
orders did, however, extend to guarding the 
Ministry of Oil, and the headquarters of the 
Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein's secret police.

The selective passivity of US forces was not only 
ethically questionable, but also a violation of 
international law. The Hague Convention for the 
Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of 
Armed Conflict (1954) makes clear that libraries 
should not only be spared attack in wartime but 
also actively protected.

Despite the sack of a major cultural institution 
and the collapse of the society around it, the 
library struggles on, continuing a long tradition 
of resurrection from the ashes of war. The 
world's first library was located in Mosul, in 
Northern Iraq. It was built in the 7th century 
BCE and produced the first known catalog in 
history. In 1927 a British archeological team 
unearthed it and, for "purposes of preservation", 
carried off many of its artifacts--including the 
oldest known copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the 
first great work of world literature.

Iraq's intellectual golden era came later and 
coincided with the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) 
whose capital was established at Baghdad. In 832, 
the construction of the Byat al-Hikma (House of 
Wisdom) established the new capital as an 
unrivaled center of scholarship and intellectual 

The tradition of research there brought advances 
in astronomy, optics, physics and mathematics. 
The father of algebra, Al-Khawarizmii, labored 
among its scrolls. It was here that many of the 
Greek and Latin texts we accept as the foundation 
of Western thought were translated, catalogued 
and preserved. And it was from Baghdad that these 
works would eventually make their way to medieval 
Europe and help lift that continent from its 
benighted, post-Roman intellectual torpor.

In 1258, the Mongols descended on Baghdad and 
emptied the libraries into the Tigris, ending the 
city's scholarly preeminence enjoyed for nearly 
500 years. "Hence the legend developed," as one 
scholar wrote, "that the river ran black from the 
ink of the countless texts lost in this manner, 
while the streets ran red with the blood of the 
city's slaughtered inhabitants."

But under the Ottoman Empire, the library 
recovered and carried on. And despite decades of 
repression and deprivation under Saddam, 
intellectual accomplishments were still regarded 
as a major aspect of Iraq's cultural identity.

The sacking of the library that began April 11, 
2003, was a bad one. The current Director of 
Iraq's National Library and Archive, Dr. Saad 
Eskander, estimates that over three days, as many 
as "60 percent of the Ottoman and Royal Hashemite 
era documents were lost as well as the bulk of 
the Ba'ath era documents.... [and] approximately 
25 percent of the book collections were looted or 
burned." Other Iraqi manuscript collections and 
university libraries suffered similar fates.

Since then, Iraqis have once again tried to 
rebuild their library. The occupying powers have 
played along, but like so much about the Iraq 
War, their effort has been marked by ineptitude, 
hypocrisy and a cruel disregard for Iraqi people 
and culture.

Early in the occupation, L. Paul Bremer's 
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), 
demonstrated an unwillingness to provide the 
basic funds necessary for the reconstruction of 
Iraq's educational and informational 
infrastructure. Dr. Rene Teijgeler, senior 
consultant for Culture for the Iraqi 
Reconstruction Management office at the American 
Embassy in Baghdad, left his position in February 
of 2005, not having "the supplies of ready cash 
that could be used to acquire something as simple 
as bookshelves." His position was left empty.

When John Agresto, the education czar of the CPA, 
asked for $1.2 billion to make Iraqi universities 
viable centers of learning: he received $9 
million. He asked USAID for 130,000 classroom 
desks, and received 8,000.

So the NLA staff have looked elsewhere, 
occasionally finding pieces of the old collection 
for sale there on Al Mutanabi street, home to 
Baghdad's booksellers. In fact Al Mutanabi is the 
source of 95 percent of the books purchased to 
replace the looted collection of Iraq's National 
Library and Archive. But Al Mutanabi was 
destroyed by a car bomb in March of 2007.

In a speech to the Internet Librarian 
International conference in 2004, Dr. Eskander 
described the state of the INLA: "When I was 
officially appointed as the new DG, INLA faced 
several challenges. It was the most damaged 
cultural institution in the country. The building 
was in a ruinous state; there was no money, no 
water, no electricity, no papers, no pens, no 
furniture (apart [from] 50 plastic chairs). The 
morale of employees [was] very low. Three 
departments out of 18 were half-functioning."

Despite this state of near-total ruin, the budget 
awarded by the CPA for the INLA in 2004, was only 

In addition to material and financial obstacles, 
Dr. Eskander has had to contend with the problems 
arising from the immaterial legacy of a 
totalitarian dictatorship. In sharp contrast to 
the de-Baathification of Iraqi society by the 
CPA, a purely negative process of removing 
ranking members of the party from civil service 
positions, the INLA has adopted a comprehensive 
approach to restructuring institutional relations.

"I removed all corrupt and lazy elements from 
positions of responsibility, while promoting a 
number of qualified young female staff to higher 
positions...The culture of taking orders was 
dominant," Eskander said. "Staff members were 
unable to and sometimes afraid of taking 
initiative. I have encouraged them to be 
proactive and creative. The new culture has begun 
gradually but steadily to take root in the 
internal life of NLA. I radically changed the 
mechanisms of decision-making and implementation 
by democratizing them. Now, librarians and 
archivists elect their own representatives who 
will participate at the meetings of the council 
of managers, where decisions are made. These 
representatives can monitor all activities within 
NLA and meet the DG anytime they want."

The INLA now provides transportation for all of 
its 425 employees (up from 95 and not counting a 
security staff of 36) despite the rising costs of 
private security. It houses a functional nursery 
in order to maintain its female staff. (American 
libraries, whose staff is 85 percent female and 
whose directors are 45 percent male, could take a 

Many dedicated people have offered important 
solidarity. In Florence, the city government 
underwrote construction of a conservation lab. 
The Czech government funded the training of Iraqi 
archivists. With the exception of invaluable 
training sessions organized by private 
educational institutions such as Harvard 
University, American support has been limited to 
a relatively small number of individual scholars, 
a few dedicated nonprofit agencies, nominal USAID 
support and the cooperation of a handful of 
private corporations. In 2005 the American 
Library Association issued a resolution on the 
connection between the Iraq war and libraries, 
calling for a full withdrawal of troops and a 
redistribution of funding but the conversation 
never extended much further than the bullet 

The US State Department has created the Iraq 
Virtual Science Library, which provides access to 
a large number of health and science databases to 
institutions throughout the country. But Internet 
access, like electricity, is intermittent at 
best. Iraq is, after all, a largely collapsed 

Many other more promising projects have been 
abandoned or left in a state of limbo for lack of 
funding. Efforts at book donation have become 
ever more challenging as the security situation 
worsens and thus have largely stopped.

The British National Library has provided 
recently published English-language social 
science texts and donated microfilm copies of its 
colonial administrative records from its last 
occupation of Iraq. But the replacement of 
physical documents largely ends here.

It would be unfair and frankly absurd to blame 
American librarians and their shrinking budgets, 
rising legal costs and increasingly costly 
dependence on proprietary databases for the state 
of Iraq's infrastructure. But the increasingly 
unstable position of American libraries is 
actually part of the same logic that produced 
that war. The disdain for cultural institutions 
does not stop at the border--bombs there, budget 
cuts here.

That said, the lack of solidarity from the 
American community of librarians and scholars for 
their Iraqi counterparts is shameful. Rousseau 
suggested that empathy is the basis of language 
and communication.

If the raison d'Ítre of the library profession is 
the preservation and dissemination of 
information, and thus the communication of ideas 
and the promotion of open discourse, then this 
question of empathy and solidarity should be the 
profession's guiding purpose. Books might seem 
like an afterthought for people facing violent 
death, poverty and shattered future, yet the 
library now receives 750 patrons a month. If 
there is any hope for stability and 
reconstruction in Iraq, a little more library 
solidarity is due.