December 16, 2003 Library of Congress Assists with the Reconstruction of the National Library in Baghdad
Library Specialists Participate in State Department Effort to Rebuild Iraq’s National Library and Archives
Press Contact: Audrey Fischer (202) 707-0022
Public Contact: Mary-Jane Deeb (202) 707-1221
A Library of Congress team of experts recently visited Baghdad to help with a State Department-sponsored project to reconstruct the National Library and Archives in Iraq. The group made an official visit to Iraq’s national library Oct. 25 - Nov. 4 to assess the damage it suffered as a result of arson on April 10 and 14.
“Libraries are essential to democracies; without unfettered access to information and knowledge, freedom cannot flourish,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “Everything we can do to preserve and enhance Iraq’s national treasures, we should do.”
Made possible by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the State Department, and the Coalition Provisional Authority Representative Office in Washington, D.C., the Library’s mission to Iraq was led by Arab-world specialist Mary-Jane Deeb and included Michael Albin, chief of the Anglo-American Acquisitions Division and former director of the Library’s field office in Cairo, and Alan Haley, a conservation specialist with the Preservation Office.
The Library’s team was the first outside group to go into the stacks containing the book and newspaper collections of Iraq’s national library and found the majority intact. Only the “republican archives” - archival documentation from 1977 to the present - had been destroyed. This included the entire microfilm collection and all documentation related to acquisitions. Earlier archives covering the period 1920 to 1977 and belonging to the Interior Ministry had been placed in rice bags and had not been damaged.
"Following the April fires, the Iraqi librarians secured the door to their stacks and denied entrance to every organization that requested access," said Carolyn Brown, chief of the Library’s Area Studies Directorate. "The fact that they agreed to unseal the doors only for a team from the Library of Congress speaks of the Library’s reputation in that part of the world. They welcomed a visit from these excellent ambassadors -- fellow librarians -- whose mission was to focus their attention entirely on their library."
The Library’s team visited the House of Manuscripts, a separate institution that housed more than 50,000 Arabic manuscripts, some of which were more than 1,000 years old. Before the war these manuscripts were packed in aluminum boxes and moved to bomb shelters for protection and librarians microfilmed the entire collection.
The team also viewed water-damaged materials that had been removed for protection from the national library and placed in the basement of the board of tourism before the war. These materials, which included 400,000 pages of documents - some dating back to the Ottoman period - and 4,000 rare and forbidden books, were damaged when pipes broke during the summer of 2003. The team made recommendations about preserving these items, while assessing that approximately 20 percent were damaged permanently.
The team discussed its findings and made recommendations in an official report titled “The Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of State Mission to Baghdad: Report on the National Library and the House of Manuscripts.” The report is available on the Library’s Web site at www.loc.gov/rr/amed/iraqreport/iraqreport.html.
The team made recommendations to the Minister of Culture that included:
- Iraq's national library should be relocated to a senior officers' club on two acres overlooking the Tigris River.
- A new building should be constructed at that site to house national library stacks.
- The old national library facility should be used for the national archives.
- The House of Manuscripts should be independent of the National Library and Archives.
During their visit to Iraq, the team took more than 600 photographs, some of which are included in the online report. A 30-minute film titled “The Library’s Mission to Baghdad,” produced by the Library and featuring interviews with the team members, will debut at the American Library Association’s 2004 Midwinter Meeting to be held Jan. 9-14 in San Diego, Calif.