It's Hard to Believe the Losses the Iraq National Library Sustained

Roundup: Talking About History

Howard LaFranchi, in the Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 14, 2004):

It's taken months of removing soot, tackling water damage, and reorganizing, but readers and researchers are back at Iraq's National Library.

Nearly a year and a half after one of Iraq's chief repositories of historical record was looted and burned, surviving archives and manuscripts are being cleaned and catalogued - while the director ventures out occasionally to scour book markets for lost treasures.

At the same time, the Iraq Museum remains closed. Its location near a hotbed of resistance puts it in the crossfire of frequent attacks on US forces. But its directors express high hopes of reopening amuseum - perhaps within a year - that far outshines that of the Hussein era.

Today both institutions, early symbols of postwar troubles, are looking toward a fresh start.

"We want to be not just a part of Iraq's new democratic and liberal culture, but a leader in it," says Saad Eskander, a Kurdish historian who was appointed library director last December. "There's still a lot of work to do and we could use much more help, but the library has come a long way since those dark days after the war."...

At the National Library, director Eskander says the blame for cultural losses must be laid at the feet of Iraqis and Americans alike. Receiving guests in an office that before the war was the kitchen of the library's theater, Eskander says, "There is no question the Americans neglected their duty as military occupiers. But what happened to this library was still primarily the fault of the former director general."

About 60 percent of the records and documents of modern Iraq were lost, along with virtually all historical maps and photos, and perhaps 95 percent of rare books, Eskander says. Almost all equipment was destroyed or carried away as well.

The wrong relocation

The former director - once the preferred poet of Saddam Hussein - was dismissed after accusations that he removed rare books from the collection. But Eskander faults the former director for a different decision: moving the library's rare books and national archives to the basement of the nearby ministry of tourism in the prewar frenzy.

"The best thing would have been to move those collections to nearby mosques," he says, "but there was a reason for choosing that ministry: It was a fortress of support of the Baathist regime and housed officials" from Mr. Hussein's intelligence forces.

Eskander says the move meant the books and archives in that basement survived the burning and looting. But about two months after Baghdad's fall, he says, "someone entered the basement, took what they wanted, and opened the water taps."

The objective, some speculate, was to obliterate the Republican Guards' archives, which were among the documents. But about 40 percent of Iraq's archives from the Ottoman Empire, along with rare books and manuscripts, were also destroyed.

The threatened total loss of documents prompted swift action from the US military, Eskander says. When it was determined that the best response would be to freeze the soaked documents for later restoration, officials quickly came up with $ 70,000 to purchase special freezers.

Still, Eskander barely hides his disappointment in other US institutions as he tours the library's gutted shell. Reaching a collection of vacuum cleaners, he says, "This is what the Library of Congress came up with to help us out - and then they wanted pictures of them in use, like they thought we were going to steal them for personal benefit."

Eskander says the US has committed to placing several library employees in archival restoration programs in the US - but as yet has refused to issue them visas.

The US official says "fears of terrorism" are holding up the visa process in general and not just for Iraqis. But, he adds, "we will get the library those visas" - if they wait long enough. Meanwhile, Eskander says he is pursuing restoration programs in European countries.

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