Benedicte Page reports on the progress of the Iraq National Library and Archive. The library was burned, shelled and bombed during the 2003 invasion, sandwiched as it was between a coalition military base and a stronghold for terrorists and ex-Ba’athists the Glorious Iraqi Resistance™. It lost its electricity, water and furniture. Several members of its staff were kidnapped or murdered.
Library director Dr Saad Eskander was in London last week to pick up an honorary fellowship from professional librarians’ body CILIP. Page listened to his talk at the British Library.
He said he ‘looted’ furniture himself from other bombed buildings so that the library had some tables and chairs. In six months he had re-opened the reading room. He quickly began to declassify records left in the archives from Saddam Hussein’s regime: ‘Iraq needed to rewrite its history and understand its past in an objective way,’ he said.
He got international support for the library (including from the BL which supplied microfilm replacements for some of the rare books and archives) and modernised the structure of the library staff, bringing in a woman’s union and elections to choose heads of departments, as well as attracting a new generation of young library staff.
The library now stocks books which would have been censored under Hussein, including volumes in Kurdish and Hebrew. It has a conservation lab for the first time in its history. Everything in the library is free, including photocopying. It has a radio station playing Iraqi music and bands are invited in to perform.
At the end of his lecture, he got a standing ovation from the audience. What really came across to me was Dr Eskander’s passionate sense of how important the library was to Iraq— his anger at how it had been degraded under Saddam, when censorship was rife and secret policemen kept an eye on borrowing activity—and his belief that the library could be a real force in rebuilding civil society in the country.