Robbing The Cradle Of Civilization

Like everyone and everything else in Iraq, the National Library and Archives have had a rough go of it since the Occupation:

The sacking of the library that began April 11, 2003, was a bad one. The current Director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive, Dr. Saad Eskander, estimates that over three days, as many as “60 percent of the Ottoman and Royal Hashemite era documents were lost as well as the bulk of the Ba’ath era documents…. [and] approximately 25 percent of the book collections were looted or burned.” Other Iraqi manuscript collections and university libraries suffered similar fates.

Since then, Iraqis have once again tried to rebuild their library. The occupying powers have played along, but like so much about the Iraq War, their effort has been marked by ineptitude, hypocrisy and a cruel disregard for Iraqi people and culture.

Early in the occupation, L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), demonstrated an unwillingness to provide the basic funds necessary for the reconstruction of Iraq’s educational and informational infrastructure. Dr. Rene Teijgeler, senior consultant for Culture for the Iraqi Reconstruction Management office at the American Embassy in Baghdad, left his position in February of 2005, not having “the supplies of ready cash that could be used to acquire something as simple as bookshelves.” His position was left empty.

When John Agresto, the education czar of the CPA, asked for $1.2 billion to make Iraqi universities viable centers of learning: he received $9 million. He asked USAID for 130,000 classroom desks, and received 8,000.

So the NLA staff have looked elsewhere, occasionally finding pieces of the old collection for sale there on Al Mutanabi street, home to Baghdad’s booksellers. In fact Al Mutanabi is the source of 95 percent of the books purchased to replace the looted collection of Iraq’s National Library and Archive. But Al Mutanabi was destroyed by a car bomb in March of 2007.

[…] Many dedicated people have offered important solidarity. In Florence, the city government underwrote construction of a conservation lab. The Czech government funded the training of Iraqi archivists. With the exception of invaluable training sessions organized by private educational institutions such as Harvard University, American support has been limited to a relatively small number of individual scholars, a few dedicated nonprofit agencies, nominal USAID support and the cooperation of a handful of private corporations. In 2005 the American Library Association issued a resolution on the connection between the Iraq war and libraries, calling for a full withdrawal of troops and a redistribution of funding but the conversation never extended much further than the bullet points.

The US State Department has created the Iraq Virtual Science Library, which provides access to a large number of health and science databases to institutions throughout the country. But Internet access, like electricity, is intermittent at best. Iraq is, after all, a largely collapsed society.

[…] It would be unfair and frankly absurd to blame American librarians and their shrinking budgets, rising legal costs and increasingly costly dependence on proprietary databases for the state of Iraq’s infrastructure. But the increasingly unstable position of American libraries is actually part of the same logic that produced that war. The disdain for cultural >institutions does not stop at the border–bombs there, budget cuts here.

This is a travesty, but one that was planned. New Orleans had problems in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, due to incompetence and terminal feet dragging on the part of the Government. But five years on, the INLA is run by a skeleton staff with next to no money or resources. And in typical US fashion, we decided to give them a big shiny Internet Database and not much else. The fact they still don’t have electricity is just one of those little oversights. We’ll get right on that, I’m sure.

As R.H. Lossin points out in the article, there’s not much help coming form US libraries and while that’s not entirely the fault of the libraries, as they are mostly underfunded and generally shit upon form a great hight by the Bush Administration as well, there are things we could do but simply aren’t. And there’s no excuse for that. The INLA, like the library of Alexandria, is part of the literary, scholastic and cultural fabric of the world, not just some low level agency in a neglected part of the world that just happens to sit adjacent to a large oil reserve. Until we readjust our perspective and start acting in a humane way, the Iraqi National Library and Archive will continue, like the rest of Iraq and increasingly, the infrastructure of the US, to slide into irrelevance and decay.