Firstly, I apologize to my “Wolf pack” for the lateness of this assignment…I struggled and ended up going down the rabbit hole which took me all over the world! I started first by looking at libraries in Botswana, for no other reason than I love Alexander McCall Smith’s book called The #1 Ladies Detective Agency. I then thought about my time in Saudi Arabia and wondered why I had never been to a library when there but, the research was too biased, hence inaccurate. My brain next switched to researching rural libraries in India because of a documentary I watched with David Letterman called “Years of Living Dangerously” where Letterman explored the development of solar energy to reduce fossil fuel emissions but, I chose to move on since they do actually have a fairly solid infrastructure of libraries. Finally, I settled on looking at how Iraq is rebuilding their library collections. Did I mention it was a deep rabbit hole?
Here is a very brief synopsis of conflict in Iraq to offer some historical context:
Since Iraq’s independence in 1932, it has been a country fraught with political and religious unrest which truly only had an impact on the Western World beginning in the 90’s when Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. Around the time of Saddam Hussein’s capture in 2003, Shia and Kurdish populations began to rebel causing more political unrest and religious turmoil. The US continued to bomb Iraq and political civil fighting continued to devastate any infrastructures left in the main cities. To jump forward, past years of bombing, new governments, presidents, Al-Qaeda, more sectarian violence and the 2011 withdrawal of American troops, we land in 2013 where a new group, called the Islamic State of Iraq, has been formed. In June 2014, Islamic State militants took occupation of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and then set about systematically destroying buildings, infrastructure and, history. As reported by Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library, in attacking Mosul University, IS militants destroyed 25% of all book collections, 60% of the archival collection, containing, maps, documents and photographs, 95% of the rare books collection (Mehegan, 2007) and, it is reported, over 100,000 precious manuscripts (Youssef, 2017).
Between 2013 and November, 2017 when Islamic State was forced out of Iraq, many more libraries and schools were destroyed and, in an effort to rid society of everything that didn’t conform to Islamic State’s violent interpretation of Islam, books were collected into piles and, with complete disregard of the written word, used to create bonfires.
After years and years of tragic sectarian violence, how is a country able to rebuild its school, university and city libraries? In this digital age, is it worth rebuilding book resources when information texts are so quickly out of date?
The answer to these questions are easily answered by one man, who at the start of 2014 called himself the “Mosul Eye” and kept his blogger-identity anonymous for safety reasons. He made an impassioned plea (https://mosul-eye.org/campaign-book-and-literature-donations-to-the-libraries-of-mosul/) to the world to donate books, all types in all languages, to Iraq in an effort to rebuild lost collections. Today, we know this man as Omar Mohammed, a professor of history at the University of Mosul. Mohammed continues to speak around the world about his secret life as the Mosul Eye blogger and in the first six months after his plea for book donations, he had already received over 60,000 books (Farand, 2017).
His goal of 200,000 is being achieved with the help of a small NGO called Entraide et Coopération en Méditerranée (https://www.facebook.com/Entraide-et-Coop%C3%A9ration-en-M%C3%A9diterran%C3%A9e-329896137206275/).
Mohammed is not the only hope for Iraq’s future libraries. Located at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, just recently, an Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal, developed an installation that is designed to help rebuild the University of Baghdad’s lost library collections. Bilal created a white bookshelf display filled with 1,000 blank books and visitors of the installation are being encouraged to replenish the shelves with titles from a wish list. To date, approximate 1,700 books have been shipped to Baghdad (Katz, 2018).
Other larger agencies, like Unicef, are also making efforts, with international aid, to restock schools with books and supplies. This does not, however, include any technology or digital equipment. To this day, many people in areas of worn-torn Iraq, like Fallujah, struggle to stay warm in damaged houses that have no water, heat or electricity (Unicef, 2017).
Libraries Without Borders is another larger agency who has been involved in supporting literacy in Iraq since 2016. LWB began working in the Bardarash refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan which, at that time, hosted nearly 10,000 people who were displaced by Islamic State militants. LWB set up two IDEAS BOX stations: one was driven by the need for psychological/emotional aid and managed by Première Urgence Internationale (PUE); the second was set up to meet an educational need and managed by the Goethe Institute, in partnership with Terre des Hommes,
What is an Ideas Box? It is essentially a pop-up multi-media educational centre. It’s definition is best taken from the website (https://www.librarieswithoutborders.org/outil/ideasbox-eng/) :
The Ideas Box is highly-durable, easy to set-up and energy-independent. Within twenty minutes of unloading the box, users will have access to a satellite internet connection, digital server, a power generator, 25 tablets and laptops, 6 HD cameras, 1 large HD screen, board games, arts and crafts materials, hardcover and paperback books, and a stage for music and theatre. Our expert team also ensures that each Ideas Box is customized to meet local needs by collaborating with organizations, leaders and members within the community.
In response to the Iraqi Government’s proposal implement digital libraries to widen accessibility, both Abdulbari Fezaa (2013) and Benoit and Rashid (2009) presented papers that recognize the value and challenges of this proposal for Iraq and its peoples. Poor infrastructure, lack of computers in the general population, shortage of internet access and constant interruptions to electricity were but some of the challenges noted by Abdulbari Fezaa (2013). Meanwhile Benoit and Rashid (2009) noted that high costs of proprietary computer programs, lack of properly trained staff in libraries and capital cost of the digital equipment were also huge challenges for Iraq in developing digital libraries. That being said, in 2006, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows managed to complete, with the aid of information from US-based agencies, and design a digital library for the sciences called The Iraqi Virtual Science Library. This library offers free access to approximately 4000 journals and other publications in the science disciplines of chemistry, engineering, mathematics, and physics (McElroy, 2010).
I truly believe that the desire to hold and access information digitally will be what the government and country will strive for going forward. Perhaps, as the country continues to rebuild its infrastructure and people begin to rebuild their lives Iraq can begin to rebuild its written history, whether in written text or digital form.
Abdulbari Fezaa, B. (2013). An Exploratory Study of the Benefits and Inhibitorsof Digital Libraries in Iraq. Masters thesis. Edith Cowan University Perth, Western Australia. Retrieved from https://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.ca/&httpsredir=1&article=2274&context=theses
BBC World News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14546763
Benoit, G. & Rashid, F. (2009). Iraq’ s Digital Library Dilemma: OpenSource Digital Objects Repository architecture, tools, and interface project. American Society for Information Science and Technology. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/meet.2009.1450460322
Entraide et Coopération en Méditerranée. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/Entraide-et-Coop%C3%A9ration-en-M%C3%A9diterran%C3%A9e-329896137206275/
Farand, C. (March 20, 2017). How Mosul’s last librarian is preparing for when his city is free from Isis. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/mosul-central-library-isis-iraq-battle-war-destroyed-books-eye-a7631956.html
Katz, B. (August 15, 2018). How an Artist Is Rebuilding a Baghdad Library Destroyed During the Iraq War. Smithsonian. com. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/artist-hopes-rebuild-baghdad-library-destroyed-during-iraq-war-180969979/
McElroy, M. (June 10, 2010). Five Years Later, an Ambitious Virtual Library is Turned Over to Iraqi Researchers and Scholars. American Association for the Advavncement of Science. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/news/five-years-later-ambitious-virtual-library-turned-over-iraqi-researchers-and-scholars
Mehegan, D. (November 8, 2007). In Baghdad, building order out of chaos. Retrieved from http://archive.boston.com/lifestyle/articles/2007/11/08/in_baghdad_building_order_out_of_chaos/?page=1
Libraries without Borders. Retrieved from https://www.librarieswithoutborders.org/countries/iraq/
Mohammed, O. https://mosul-eye.org/
National Post. (January 31, 2015). ISIS burning books at Iraq libraries and loading artifacts onto refrigerated trucks at night, residents say. The Associated Press. Retrieved from https://nationalpost.com/news/world/israel-middle-east/isis-burning-books-at-iraq-libraries-and-loading-artifacts-onto-refrigerated-trucks-at-night-residents-say
Nogueira, S. B. (November 28, 2017). After years of conflict, schools reopen and hope returns to Fallujah. Unicef. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/emergencies/iraq_94211.html
Youssef, N. (April 12, 2017). Rebuilding Mosul’s libraries book by book. BBC World News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39439657