Iraqi Libraries Devastated in War

By Andrew Albanese & Michael Rogers

ALA deplores losses; experts say their warnings were ignored

The Iraqi National Library and several other libraries were destroyed by looters - some of them professional thieves - in the wake of war last month. Observers worldwide were shocked, wondering whether such important icons of cultural heritage, along with museums, should have been better protected.

According to media reports, looters destroyed the National Library of Iraq and National Center for Archives, which held 417,000 books, 2,618 periodicals from the late Ottoman era and modern times, and a collection of 4,412 rare books and manuscripts. Andras Riedlmayer, bibliographer in Islamic art at Harvard's Fine Arts Library, told the Boston Globe that the destruction is "an incalculable and largely irreplaceable loss."

Also decimated were the Awqaf Library, which held some 8500 Islamic manuscripts as well as ancient Korans; the University of Mosul library, which reported the loss of 890,000 volumes, rare books, and manuscripts; and the University of Basra library's 190,000 volumes and 700 manuscripts.

Three members of the president's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property resigned in protest. Chair Martin Sullivan called the looting of the country's museums and libraries "foreseeable and preventable."

Work to rebuild?

In a statement from the American Library Association (ALA) Washington Office, President Maurice J. (Mitch) Freedman said that ALA stood ready to work with "our sister cultural organization in Iraq, appropriate agencies, and the Iraqi people." Freedman also called upon the U.S. government to help rebuild and restore Iraq's libraries.

The ALA statement, however, was quickly criticized by ALA councilor-at-large Mark Rosenzweig, who blasted the statement's failure to castigate U.S. forces for not stopping the looting. He suggested that ALA's Washington Office had jumped the gun, saying in a discussion list comment that it was "a bad precedent to use the [ALAWON] newsletter as a vehicle to announce policies which have not been before Council." Freedman, however, told LJ, "The ALA Washington Office was giving a preliminary statement that made two points consistent with policy." Freedman added that ALA "has to act between Council meetings," and "if we waited until Council met at the end of June, it could very well be far too late."

Shortly afterward, ALA announced it was working with other members of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force - including the Library of Congress, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and various cultural organizations - to coordinate with efforts of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and UNESCO to respond to requests for assistance to help restore the National Library and Archive and other institutions.

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