By GAIL FINEBERG
Some of Iraq's national archives documenting Saddam Hussein's regime since 1977 were methodically incinerated on April 10 and 14. But the contents of Iraq's national library appear to have survived the war so far. Contemporary government records comprising part of Iraq's national archives were housed in the same Baghdad building as the books, newspapers and other materials held by the national library.
On Nov. 20 a Library of Congress team of three reported these and other findings to a large gathering at the Library. The team made an official visit to Baghdad between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3 to assess war damage to the national library and offer assistance in restoring this cultural asset of Iraq.
"However you feel about getting into the war, libraries are essential to democracy and the freedom of people. Anything we can do, we should try to do," said Carolyn Brown, director for Area Studies, at the outset of the discussion.
Showing slides to support the team's conclusions, Mary-Jane Deeb, the leader of the group, argued that the records of Hussein's regime were destroyed deliberately. "The concept that there was random looting and burning is absolutely incorrect," Deeb said.
In the same building, the team found bags of earlier government records, from 1920 to 1977, that had not been burned, as well as rooms full of unburned books from private collections.
The first outsiders to be allowed into the book stacks of Iraq's national library since Iraqi librarians sealed them in April, the team observed that, although materials were "not in very good order," they were on the shelves.
The team also photographed aluminum crates containing some 50,000 manuscripts that Iraqi librarians had removed from the House of Manuscripts, as well as items from other repositories, and stashed safely in a neighborhood bomb shelter 10 days before bombing began on March 20. These items ranged from "the 10th to the late 19th century," Deeb said.
"Early reports indicated these manuscripts had been destroyed, but that was not the case," said Michael Albin, chief of the Anglo-American Acquisitions Division, a member of the Library's team.
The three team members making the trip to Baghdad were particularly well suited for their mission. An Arab world specialist in the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division, Deeb speaks Arabic and lived in Egypt and war-torn Lebanon. Albin speaks Arabic and lived in Cairo for 10 years as the director of the Library's field office there; he taught at the Baghdad College in the late 1960s. Alan Haley, a conservation specialist with the Preservation Office, volunteered to go to lend his expertise in salvaging damaged library materials.
In addition to assessing war damage to the national library facilities and collections, this trio recommended in an official report to the U.S. agencies sponsoring their trip that Iraq's national library be relocated to a senior officers' club on two acres overlooking the Tigris River; that a new building be constructed at that site to house national library stacks; that the old national library facility be used for the national archives; and that a small palace house the country's valuable manuscripts. Haley also left a long list of conservation tips for salvaging materials damaged by water and raw sewage and guidelines about how to care for books and other materials covered with soot and dust.
Every afternoon during their visit, Deeb, Albin and Haley reported that day's findings to the Italian ambassador, Mario Bandioli-Osio, an advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the Coalition of Provisional Authority (CPA). He and the minister of culture accepted the team's final report and recommendations and agreed to spend $5 million to renovate the officers' club for a new national library building and to build new book stacks.
Asked what role the Library of Congress will play in the reconstruction of Iraq's national library, Deeb responded, "This is an Iraqi project; these are their collections. We went there as advisors, to help with a project that is underway. … They will build their own library and transfer their collections. That is the only way. Later on, we will help with collection development."
Brown said the story of the team's mission to Iraq began with a public statement in March by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington that the Library of Congress would help the National Library of Iraq. She described the months of discussions with the State Department, the Pentagon and the CPA that followed, and the ceaseless efforts of the "indefatigable Mary-Jane Deeb" to arrange passage to Baghdad.
Suddenly, in September, the barriers came down. Not only did the State Department and the Pentagon approve the trip, but they also paid for it. The Library team was cleared for departure on Oct. 25, the day before the al Rashid Hotel was bombed and two days before the headquarters of the International Red Cross was bombed.
"We were oblivious at the time. We were traveling and intent on our mission; there was no trouble where we were," Deeb said after her talk.
The team flew from Washington to Kuwait City, where they landed on an airfield surrounded by soldiers, tents, military equipment and trucks bearing the initials KBR. Deeb said she assumed KBR stood for a Kuwaiti agency, but agents for the American firm of Kellogg, Brown and Root soon took charge of the Library team. "We were taken over by Kellogg, Brown and Root, which processed us and issued us flak jackets and helmets," she said.
"The next morning we were taken to a U.S. air base in Kuwait and treated as if we were part of the troops. We were told to wait, to get up and then to rush onto a waiting C130," Deeb said. On their arrival in Baghdad, they were provided with an armed escort to the Republican Palace headquarters of the U.S. military, 3,000 U.S. troops and the provisional government. Rather than stay there, however, as U.S. officials had recommended earlier, Deeb preferred they keep their reservations in a small Iraqi hotel on the outskirts of the city. "There were only five guests there, the three of us and two Japanese diplomats," Deeb said.
Illustrating their talk with slides selected from the 600 photographs they took during their visit, Deeb and Albin showed the audience what they found at the national library, which was built in 1977; the national archives was added in 1988.
The team saw that the library's interior entrance had been burned extensively, as had a nearby stairwell, where "books were thrown around to give the impression of major looting," Deeb said. Torched file cabinets thrown into a courtyard added to that impression.
However, in nearby rooms housing Iraqi national archives, fires of much greater intensity had destroyed the records of Hussein's regime, from 1977 to 2003. UNESCO investigators said fires of such intensity must have been caused by highly incendiary fuel and not by gasoline splashed at random by looters, Deeb said.
"What was in those rooms were some of the modern archives of Saddam Hussein; they were destroyed in two organized fires on April 10 and 14," Deeb said.
In a nearby room of the same building, they found rice bags stuffed with records documenting Iraq's history for an earlier period, from 1920 to 1977. "These were not of any importance to those who destroyed the later records," Deeb said. They were uncataloged and in disarray, Deeb said, but in perfectly good condition.
With another slide, she guided the audience down the hall from rooms full of ashes to a room full of books "in totally good condition." Across the hall from the burned records were the unburned private libraries donated by poets and writers.
The next shot was a view from the library and archives of the nearby ministry of defense.
Another slide showed the exterior doors leading to the stacks of the national library. "These doors were closed. After the fires on April 10 and 14, the stacks were sealed. The librarians unsealed the stacks for the first time, for us—not for UNESCO or the U.S. military, but for the Library of Congress," Deeb said, emphasizing the high esteem with which Iraqi librarians regard the Library of Congress.
"The stacks were not burned," Deeb said. "Books were dumped on the shelves, but they were not burned." Acquisitions files for the archives and all of the microfilm collection were burned, but a card catalog for national library holdings was not torched, she continued.
Showing a picture of Iraqi librarians cataloging materials, Deeb pointed out two Shiite clergymen who, after the April fires, had organized men in their mosques to come with their pickup trucks to the national library. They loaded up boxes containing 200,000 books, plus printers, copiers and other equipment and distributed them to mosques and private homes for safekeeping until after the war. The Library team witnessed men and trucks returning these items to the national library.
Deeb said the Arabic-speaking abilities of the team helped them build a rapport with the Iraqi librarians. "You could see it in their faces. When we arrived, they appeared sullen and solemn. But after a few days there were big smiles, big welcomes," she said.
Albin described his job, which was to assess damage to the facilities and to recommend a new home for the national library of Iraq. He found one—in an Iraqi officers' club constructed of granite and marble. "We weren't there for 10 minutes before we recognized this was an excellent place for the national library," he said.
Although the building had been looted, the windows were broken and there was no water, there was ample space on the second floor for cataloging, filming and scanning, and on the first floor adequate room for public users. A 40-foot-long cocktail bar "would make an excellent circulation desk," Albin said with a grin.
There was one drawback. "There was no real room for books. As librarians, we recognized this right away," Albin said. "A cataloging division does not a library make."
However, two acres of artfully landscaped grounds surrounding the facility offer room for construction of a three-to-four-story building to house the stacks. Albin said if construction starts soon, the book storage facility could be ready by next fall.
One of Albin's most valuable finds was Paul Drake, an Army engineer assigned to the officers' club to keep it habitable. He had already drawn up plans for the building as a library and community center, which he envisioned as an "exploratorium for old and young." Albin said. Drake's commanding officer was so enthusiastic about Drake's plans and Albin's assessment that he threatened to extend Drake's tour of duty. "Oh no, don't do that," Albin told him.
Albin and Deeb discussed some of the water damage they saw when they visited a third site. Some 4,000 books and 40,000 documents, from the period of Iraq's occupation by the Ottoman Turks to 1958, had been stored in the basement of a tourist bureau, which had flooded. Water, raw sewage and resulting mold had ruined an estimated 20 percent of this material, which the Library team recommended be transferred to three freezers in the basement of the officers' club.
On a happier note, librarians from the House of Manuscripts guided the team to a neighborhood bomb shelter where they had hidden manuscripts from various repositories. "When we marveled at this cultural salvation of Iraq's history," Albin said, "one of the Iraqi librarians remarked, 'It's not as if we haven't had practice,' explaining that they had cataloged, crated and sheltered the same materials during the Iran-Iraq war and again during the Gulf War."
Deeb learned from the librarians how people in the neighborhood had helped protect their nation's patrimony from looting and ransacking. They put up their own money to hire security guards to help men in the neighborhood guard the manuscripts 24 hours a day. "Women sat on their balconies and ululated if they saw anybody approaching," Deeb said.
"We were pleased to see that they had preserved their culture as best they could," she said of her colleagues in Iraq.
Gail Fineberg is the editor of the Library's staff newsletter, The Gazette.