Response to the Destruction of Iraq’s Historical Collections: An Essay by Heela Naqshband

Oct 27, 2006

            As Americans, many of us take for granted the easy access we have to libraries and museums throughout the country, not to mention the importance of the documents, publications and collections archived in such institutions. We cannot fathom any of our nation’s repositories being damaged, let alone destroyed, for reasons other than the occasional wrath of Mother Nature. Yet, purposeful destruction of libraries and museums have occurred throughout the world for centuries, with some of the most recent examples being the National Library and Archives, National Museum, and other significant cultural heritage sites in Iraq after the 2003 invasion of Baghdad by U.S. troops. The response of librarians and archivists worldwide to this devastating occurrence has been one of unease, disappointment and frustration, but also support and hope for restoring this veritable treasure trove of humanity.

            Before getting into the events of April 2003, a brief account of Iraq’s recent history is needed to better comprehend the current situation of libraries in the country. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, Iraq has faced much political instability. After years of an ineffective monarchy and a number of oustings, the Baathist party gained power in the 1960s with promises of a separation from Western ideals and a reunification of the country, including improved education and the growth of libraries and other centers for literacy. This revitalization, however, was associated with repression, censorship, hostility and violence against those who questioned or opposed the government (O’Shea, 2004). The Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 and the Gulf War with Kuwait from 1990 to 1991 added to the unpredictability of Iraq’s governing powers. The United States (U.S.) stepped in to assist Kuwait and began a bombing campaign against Iraq for about a month, starting in mid-January 1991, which also led to the destruction of millions of books, thousands of pieces of media equipment and several cultural sites. (O’Shea, 2004). In addition, the United Nations (U.N.) placed severe sanctions on Iraq so libraries again suffered, because there was not enough funding available to maintain these facilities (O’Shea, 2004). Needless to say, relations between the U.S. and Iraq were strained, and the U.S. invaded Iraq for a second time in March 2003 in order to, as proclaimed by George W. Bush and his administration, protect the world against supposed “weapons of mass destruction” by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party. What happened, as a result set, in motion a chain of events that shocked librarians and archivists around the world.

            Historians and researchers have repeatedly deemed Iraq the cradle of civilization. Not only is this region the resting grounds of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, those who formed the first known societies to man, it is also “the birthplace of writing, codified law, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and the world’s earliest cities and irrigation systems.” (Kam, 2004).

            Iraq’s National Library and Archives (NLA) was built in 1920, and was then moved and rebuilt at a new, more modern location in 1976. It housed over a million books and more than 20 million documents, including every book ever published in the country, rare books on Islam and Judaism, handwritten documents from thousands of years ago and even examples of mankind’s first written words (Sharma, 2003). The NLA also contained the world’s biggest collection of Arabic newspapers, documents from the time of the Ottoman Empire, and over 500 years of communication between governing powers and amongst Iraqi citizens (Kam, 2004).

            The National Museum of Iraq was just as impressive. It contained over 170,000 artifacts from many ancient civilizations, such as manuscripts, harps, statues, jewelry, pottery, furniture, ivories, tablets, seals, figurines, vases, and many other objects, as well as the world’s largest and most remarkable collection of Mesopotamian art (Kam, 2004; Sharma, 2003).

            According to Saad Eskander (2004), the current Director General of Iraq’s National Library and Archives (NLA), American troops stormed and took over the NLA on April 10th, 2003, by toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in front of the building. When they left, the NLA was completely unprotected and accessible by anyone. Just minutes later, Eskander reported that much of the NLA was on fire and looters began stealing whatever equipment and “cultural-intellectual” collections they could get their hands on. The fires and lootings continued again days later, resulting in losses of 60% of the NLA’s archival materials, 25% of its publications and nearly all of its historical photographs and maps (Eskander, 2004).

            The National Museum fared no better. During the course of the same week, looters ransacked and destroyed a considerable amount of its collection. While curators and archeologists transferred thousands of artifacts to secret locations months before the obviously impending U.S. invasion, of the over 500,000 artifacts once housed in the museum, almost 11,000 pieces are still missing and more than 18,000 have been destroyed (Kam, 2004).        

            Several other important libraries suffered damages. The Library of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which once held ancient copies of the Koran and 8,500 Islamic manuscripts in Arabic, as well as several hundreds in Farsi and Turkish, was looted, with estimates of up to 50% of its works having been destroyed (Kam, 2004). The House of Wisdom, an arts and humanities research center and library, had not yet stood for 10 years when it was plundered and burned (Kam, 2004). The Iraqi Academy of Science, a multidisciplinary facility, was not burned, but all of its manuscripts and 80% of its books were stolen (Kam, 2004). The academic libraries at the Universities of Baghdad, Mosul and Basra all suffered similar detrimental losses (O’Shea, 2004).

            Library and archive groups worldwide were in an uproar over this destruction of intellectual and cultural materials. Many issued statements and resolutions criticizing U.S. forces for allowing the destruction to take place and calling for immediate action on the part of all governments and non-government organizations to salvage any remnants and devise plans to reorganize the infrastructures of these archives and literary institutions. In addition, virtually every group pushed for adherence to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Under this agreement, libraries, archives, museums and other such repositories are to be protected, because “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world” (“Hague Convention,” 1954). The U.S. government has signed the treaty, but not yet authorized it, although when Bill Clinton presented the contract to the Senate for ratification in 1999, he guaranteed that the actions of the U.S. military would remain in line with the conditions of the Convention. (Shipe, 2004). This was not necessarily the case, however, as two higher-ranking cultural advisors to George W. Bush “resigned in outrage over the American military’s failure to prevent looting of antiquities from Iraq’s national museum in Baghdad” (Kam, 2004).  

            The American Library Association (ALA, 2005) released a resolution censuring U.S. and British powers for doing nothing to prevent the fires and looting leading to the loss of Iraq’s cultural resources. According to ALA, “U. S. forces were able to protect certain ministry buildings but did not secure the buildings housing the libraries, archives and cultural artifacts.” The group pointed out that American authorities had previously been advised by professors and researchers of the necessity to protect these national reserves. ALA also insisted that the U.S. finally ratify and comply with the Hague Convention, assist monetarily with rebuilding libraries and archives in Iraq, and involve librarians in the cultural reconstruction of the country.  

            Members of the Art Libraries Society of North America (Shipe, 2004) were distraught by the “loss of irreplaceable art works, artifacts, and documents attesting to 7,000 years of Mesopotamian and Iraqi history and civilization” and compared the destruction of Iraq’s libraries and museums to that of the library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt. ARLIS/NA declared that the destruction was “further enabled by the inexcusable negligence of the military” and demanded that “the United States bears at least partial, if not primary responsibility for the destruction of these precious cultural assets.”

            Based on confirmations of the damage to Iraq’s libraries and archives, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA, 2003) passed a resolution persuading the national governments of all its members to ratify the Hague Convention, help establish the notion of “cultural war crime[s],” and join the effort to restore the entire web of library infrastructures in the country. IFLA encouraged all countries to take measures to combat unlawful and detrimental black-market trade of Iraq’s cultural artifacts. As per their resolution, the organization acknowledged the central importance of libraries to civil society and the necessity for preserving the world’s recorded history. In addition, IFLA urged its own association to begin working on building, expanding and tightening up its communications program to bring about an awareness of Iraq’s grave state of affairs and the global implications of the loss of these archives.

            The International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS, 2003) considered “access to authentic cultural heritage a basic human right,” especially in an area with such an abundance of historical importance. ICBS acknowledged the many concerns associated with war, including but not limited to death and disorder. The collective also urged that all governments adopt and comply with the Hague Convention and agree to protect the cultural repositories of Iraq and surrounding war-zones. According to ICBS, “international humanitarian law prohibits the use of cultural property for military purposes or to shield military objectives.” The organization also suggested that financially stable countries should provide the monetary assistance and man-power necessary to appraise and evaluate the amount of destruction caused by the U.S. invasion, as well as from the looting and fires that spawned from its lawless aftermath. Only then, they deem, can measures be taken to restore Iraq’s documents and artifacts. Finally, ICBS proposed that experts work with Iraqi scholars and heritage professionals to create the plans necessary to start repairing the damage. The demanding requests placed on other nations are to be reciprocated by ICBS who pledged to act in response to appeals for assistance. 

            In addition to its sheer concern for the protection of Iraq’s cultural legacy, the International Council on Archives (Van Albada, 2003) issued a statement beseeching all nations to be aware of any trade or sale of looted materials and for librarians, archivists, curators and art collectors and dealers to let authorities know of any offers to purchase these stolen goods. ICA also promised to support reconstruction efforts by accessing damage, saving damaged materials and training and re-training local archivists. In addition to cultural artifacts, ICA recognized the need to restore important government records that “provide the documentation required to uphold individual Iraqis' rights by proving their identities, place of birth, ethnic identities and property rights.” The organization felt these records helped substantiate claims of the oppression suffered by Iraqi citizens and are necessary to ensure future stability of the country. 

            The Arab Regional Branch of the International Council of Archives (ARBICA, 2003) issued a statement in which it “hold[s] coalition forces and their respective governments fully responsible for all the material, moral and intellectual damages inflicted upon” Iraq’s cultural and historical repositories. ARBICA also urged a swift call to action to recover and protect these materials, find funding to cover these costs, and stop Iraq’s reserves from being taken out of the country. The organization was appalled by the looting that took place by Iraqi citizens, but was just as dismayed that coalition troops did nothing about this destruction for days. Unlike other archival or library groups, ARBICA pondered if “such an expedition was organized to demolish the identity of the Iraqi civilization,” and, in turn, the ancient history of the entire human race. It is an erasing from the memory of where in fact human civilizations first began: the Middle East. It may also be a deliberate destruction of Saddam’s past on record by supporters of his regime. ARBICA placed a great deal of responsibility on the U.S. for the damage that occurred via bombings and lootings. In addition, the organization felt that the U.S. has a greater obligation than others, since the U.S. has some of the top museums, libraries and universities in the world and should work to defend the repositories of other countries.

            The Society of American Archivists (SAA, 2003) issued a statement insisting that the U.S. work together with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the International Council on Archives to make preservation of Iraq’s archives a priority, including acquiring the funds to do so. SAA believed that “government records safeguard the rights and freedoms that citizens enjoy” and must be archived so that the country may develop into a “stable, democratic, and prosperous nation.” These records can hold a government responsible for its actions, allow common people to be aware of their civil liberties and help establish financial stability. Otherwise, SAA warned, “the Iraqi people as well as the citizens of the world will lose an important part of our shared cultural heritage.”

            In addition to issuing statements highlighting the outrage and distress over the devastation of Iraq’s repositories, some of the major investigations and assessments of the destruction were carried out by UNESCO and the Library of Congress. Both organizations took on huge tasks.  

            Shortly after the first days of looting, UNESCO (“Post conflict activities,” 2003) sent correspondence to the Ministries of Culture for those countries bordering Iraq (Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria) asking them to help guarantee they would keep a close watch of Iraq’s cultural sites and buildings in order to decrease further looting and damage. Authorities in the U.S. and Great Britain were also notified. Another reason for this request may have been to curb any imminent black market sales and trades. UNESCO’s Director General, Koichïro Matsuura then issued a statement demanding that repositories for all nations be protected as “libraries are the essence of knowledge societies” (Sharma, 2003).  After meeting with an American ambassador to speak about assembling a possible investigative delegation, Matsuura called together several meetings of senior experts from around the world to discuss the distressing state of affairs in Iraq after the invasion of Baghdad. Some of their objectives included coordinating efforts of specialists from around the world, creating guidelines for involvement after the war, restoring Iraq’s “cultural heritage,” initiating additional plans for preservation, and re-establishing catalogs of the country’s literary and cultural materials (“Post conflict activities,” 2003). Less than a month later, a team of experts was sent to Iraq to assess damages and losses, determine the most pressing needs, and start working on a plan for safeguarding the remnants of Iraq’s national repositories. After visiting the National Museum, the team discovered that damage from bombs, missiles and guns was noticeable, but not that detrimental. Much of the equipment and apparatuses needed for the museum to function were destroyed or missing. (“First assessment,” 2003; “Second assessment,” 2003). After investigating the NLA, the experts concluded that the damage and destruction to the libraries and archives was rather intentional in nature. When describing the infernos that had burned documentation of Saddam Hussein’s administration, the team insisted that “fires of such intensity must have been caused by highly incendiary fuel and not by gasoline splashed randomly by looters” (Fineberg, 2003). Once the assessments were completed, UNESCO initiated two fundraising campaigns; one was geared toward international charities and private non-government organizations, while the other focused on pursuing private Swiss donors (“Post conflict activities,” 2003).

            Months later in the fall of 2003, the Library of Congress sent a team of three librarians specializing in the Arab world and preservation to evaluate the damage incurred as a result of the war. In concurrence with assessments by UNESCO, one of the librarians’ main findings was that “the concept of random looting and burning is absolutely incorrect” (Fineberg, 2003). The team was convinced that much of the destruction, including looting, fires and flooding was deliberate. When viewing certain areas of the NLA, the librarians remarked that the rooms containing archives of Saddam Hussein’s reign from 1977 to 2003 were “destroyed in two organized fires,” while government documents from earlier periods were found stuffed in rice bags, but otherwise virtually unharmed (Fineberg, 2003). In addition, private collections donated by various writers were also intact, but much of the library’s microfilm collection was completely destroyed (Fineberg, 2003).

            The librarians also mentioned that the Library of Congress sent them to the country as advisors, but that reconstruction of Iraq’s libraries is a project of and for the Iraqi people, who must be take control and be responsible for rebuilding their literary repositories (Fineberg, 2003). Much to their delight, the team discovered that prior to the U.S. invasion, Iraqis had already been transferring books, manuscripts and other documents to bomb shelters and other safe locations for storage. Soon after the fires and looting, clergymen organized locals to collect any undamaged equipment from the NLA and store them in mosques and personal residences until the war ended (Fineberg, 2003).

            What happened in Iraq helps reveal the significance and role libraries and archives play in society, culture and politics. Libraries, archives and museums serve as impartial warehouses of information in a world full of discrimination. These repositories are accessible to anyone, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, political affiliation, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or any other common discriminator, and allow for the preservation and circulation of history, culture and knowledge.  

            When commenting on the situation in Iraq, John W. Carlin (2003), former Archivist of the United States, called archives and records “the very foundation of our democracy.” He explained that in the U.S., the actions of the government are well-documented and citizens have the right to examine these records and hold the government responsible for its actions. Compared to a country under absolute rule, Carlin noted that “while democracies go to great lengths to protect their documentary heritage, the leaders of dictatorships rush to hide or destroy that what can incriminate them. The difference is strikingly clear.” Iraq’s Minister of Culture, Mufid al-Jazairi, agreed with this when he stated “democracy and culture are indissociable: without culture there can be no democracy” (“Democracy and culture,” 2003).

            Libraries and museums contribute to the dignity and honor of a society by safeguarding and displaying its cultural and intellectual history. Imagine if the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, and vast history museums and prestigious academic libraries throughout the U.S. were destroyed within a matter of days. What a catastrophe this would be to our country. Keeping that in mind, take into consideration the amount of chronological and cultural material collected within the short history of a few centuries of the United States in comparison to the magnitude of ancient documents and artifacts once contained within Iraq’s libraries and museums dating back millennia. American librarian Jeffrey Garrett (2003) reveals that “the targeted or tolerated destruction of libraries denies a people the opportunity to draw from the past and reflect knowledgeably on their place in history and the world to come.” The adage of philosopher George Santayana that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is particularly relevant to the significant role libraries play in society.

            Unfortunately, society often dismisses librarians as meek and passive.  The reaction and determination of librarians and archivists around the world to the incidents in Iraq, though, prove otherwise. Michèle Cloonan (2006), dean of Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science remarks:

            As librarians we seldom think about the potential of our moral force against the destruction of libraries, archives, and museums…. Even in a country as unstable as Iraq, librarians can continue to offer the kinds of services that will aid in the rebuilding of a country.

Restoring order to war-torn countries relies heavily on the reforming its information infrastructure. Librarians and archivists can be instrumental in this process.          

            Whether one is for or against war in general, or believes or doubts the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq in particular, it is obvious that damage to a country’s infrastructure, however detrimental, can be remedied with enough time, money and patience. The lives lost and the obliteration of records and artifacts of a country’s history and culture, on the other hand, can never be replaced. With the world becoming more complex and convoluted every day, the information contained within libraries and archives may be the key to the progression of society.


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