Wednesday, October 28, 2009

National Libraries

Iraq National Library and Archive

Imagine that you are the director of a national library, dream job, right? Or how about just working on the staff of that same national library? Now, shift your imagination half way across to the world to Iraq and picture the job of being a national library director or employee, where in light of recent occurrences and following years of intellectual oppression, you will face insurmountable challenges. Most libraries in the United States right now are facing budget shortfalls from Omaha to Pennsylvania, but all that dims in comparison to bombs falling near your library or a majority of your archives either being destroyed by fire or confiscated by a occupying power or even stolen and looted by your own countrymen. Those that are left are in disarray, damaged and dirty. Precious, ancient documents forever gone, reduced to ashes and soot. All of this is a reality for the Iraq National Library and Archives and its director, Saad Eskander.

Iraq’s National Library and Archives have faced challenges for nearly three decades now, even before the tenure of the current director, Saad Eskander who returned from exile in late 2003 to take over as director general of the library. (Gravois, 2008) Beginning in the early 1980s when the Baath regime came to power in the country; that Ba’ath regime was anti-modern, opposed to multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity and opposing political view points. (Eskander, 2004) Directors throughout the time that the Ba’ath party was ruling Iraq were party members. Recently, secret police agents were planted among the staff of the NLA to monitor the reading habits of library users. (Eskander, 2004) The minister of culture nicknamed the library “the cemetery of books.” (Gravois, 2008) This threatening presence led to a decrease in the number of library users. Also during this time period, the library was underfunded and lacked the resources to even meet the basic needs of a public library, let alone a national one; equipment, facilities and furniture were all of poor quality. (Eskander, 2004) In 1987, due to reduced spending in the areas of culture by the Ba’ath regime, the National Archive was merged with the National Library to form the National Library and Archives or NLA. (Eskander, 2004)

According to its director, Saad Eskander in speech recorded in Information Today but given at Internet Librarian International 2004 conference, the NLA is about 30 years behind other national libraries in terms of its collection development with much of its collection coming from its legal deposit department and donations by foreign libraries. The Ba’athist regime demanded and hoarded information but did not share it. (Eskander, 2004) Even still, these collections were of poor quality that did not meet the needs of the libraries readers; modern equipment was also scarce and was limited to some microfilm readers and a few computers. Much of this equipment was acquired through the oil for food program during the time period of international sanctions. (Eskander, 2004) Another challenge faced by the NLA was when the Ministry of Culture removed the air conditioning and ventilation system for much of the NLA building, including areas of book repositories and archival materials. (Eskander, 2004) Anyone who has seen a document stored in an attic of a building understands what damage unstable and extreme temperatures can do to a book or document; also think of the human consequences of having to work in an indoor environment where temperatures can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 28 degrees F in the winter. Also during this time period, the NLA was cut off from the international library community and lost their membership in many international library organizations due to the refusal of the Ba’ath regime to pay membership dues. (Eskander, 2004) The average age of the librarians and archivists were high and pay was extremely low, about $3 a month; corruption was also rampant. (Eskander, 2004)

In 2003, during the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, U.S. military vehicles entered the library and tore down the statue of Saddam outside of the library. Soon after the soldiers departed, a fire broke out in parts of the building, while the fire raged; looters entered the building, grabbing anything of value. Two days later, the same scene occurred again. Following the two fires and the looting, about 60 percent of the archival collections were lost. (Eskander, 2004) Computers, furniture, microfilm readers and other office equipment was also lost in the looting and fires. The library did retain most of its book stacks but even those were in disarray, books, journals and cards from the card catalog were scattered on the floor, a thick layer of soot and dust covered shelves, books and journals. (Eskander, 2004) Finally, during the 2003 invasion, the U.S seized approximately 100 million pages of Iraqi state documents from the time of Saddam’s rule as part of the search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Following a digitization project in the U.S., those records remain on United States soil and will remain so for at least another 5 years. (Gravois, 2008)

Rebuilding: picking up the pieces of nearly three decades of an oppressive regime and six years of civil war and foreign occupation and the next phase for the Iraq National Library and Archives. In late 2006, the library was rebuilding but had to close temporarily due to ongoing violence. According to its director, the decision was reached after several staff members were killed and the building had been increasingly under fire. (American Libraries, 2007) The library is also located in the most dangerous area of the city. (Kniffel, 2007) Today, people are beginning to return to the library, on a good day up to 90 people will show up. The director and his staff of 400 are rebuilding the library with a vision to be better than they have been before the 2003 invasion. (Kniffel, 2007) The library has already become a center for intellectual activity and technology with a state of the art computer lab. (Kniffel, 2007) Staff members are young and in a quote to National Public Radio, Eskander stated why this is beneficial to the library, “because I do believe that technology needs young brains, new brains.” (Kniffel, 2007) Staff members are being trained in other countries in cataloging, archiving and transferring documents to microfilm. (Kniffel, 2007) Support is also being lent by other country’s national library’s, such as the British Library, which provided microfilm copies of rare books from the administration of Iraq from 1914 to 1921. (Kniffel, 2007)

Finally, the question remains, who owns the documents seized during the 2003 invasion? In the United States, political party’s documents are not considered public records, yet in other instances of a single party state’s fall, that party’s records are treated as public record. (Gravois, 2008) Are these 100 million pages of Ba’ath party documents from Saddam’s regime too dangerous to go back to Iraq? Is it too physically dangerous due to continuing violence and instability as well as mentally and emotionally due to otherwise concealed information they contain regarding the regime’s secrets and records of what may have happened to dissidents? Is the United States behaving the same way that the regime they came to overthrow did, keeping information from the people that it affects and needs it the most? Is the United States acting in a benevolent manner by keeping the painful secrets of Iraq’s past just that, a secret? Should the international community, especially the library community, intervene by demanding the return of the confiscated documents? What responsibility does the U.S. have to Iraq’s National Library to help it rebuild and become a cultural and technological hub of the nation?


Eskander, S. (2004). The Tale of iraq's 'cemetery of books'. Information Today, 21(11)

Gravois, J. (2008). A Tug of war for iraq's memory. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(22)

(2007). Iraq national library closes briefly. American Libraries, 38(1)

Kniffel, Leonard. (2007). National library copes as Iraq war presses on. American Libraries, 38(5), Retrieved from Kniffel, L. National Library Copes As Iraq War Presses on. American Libraries v. 38 no. 5 (May 2007) p. 17


Amy Alcenius said...

You bring up a lot of good questions concerning who actually owns that data, especially the documents that the US took. I had no idea we were still holding these papers, and I personally think they should be given right back and the contents released to the people. After years of suppression, it's terrible that we just continued the tradtion in a different way.

J Moses said...

I agree with Amy that the documents should be given back. There is a tremendous amount of healing and understanding that must take placed in order for the people in Iraq to move forward.