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Magazines > Information Today > December 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 11 — December 2004

International Report
The Tale of Iraq's 'Cemetery of Books'

[Editor's Note: This is an edited version of Saad Eskander's keynote speech at the Internet Librarian International 2004 conference held in London Oct. 10—12.]


We all know how significant is the role of national libraries and archives in the process of political modernization and cultural development of old and new nations. In the life of a new nation, like that of Iraq, national libraries and national archives can (and should) play a key role in the formation of national identity, true citizenship, and civil society. Such institutions can also play a constructive role in the dissemination of democratic, liberal, and humanistic values.

In Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the National Library and Archive (NLA) was an abandoned cemetery, void of progressive culture and critical thinking. Iraqi librarians and archivists were forced to be the servants of the totalitarian state.

I truly hope that no country in the world experiences what we experienced following the fall of the dictator. I also hope I can give you an honest and frank explanation of what took place in Baghdad in mid-April 2003, when most cultural institutions were looted and burnt. It was a national disaster beyond imagination. Within the space of 3 days, Iraq National Library and Archive lost a large portion of Iraq's historical memory. Hundreds of thousands of archival documents, historical records, and rare books were lost forever. Many Iraqi intellectuals and even ordinary citizens felt ashamed by what happened. I am one of them. We all did not expect this looting and destruction. We did not realize how much Saddam and his thugs succeeded in radically changing the heart, the mind, and the behavior of a large number of people—people who could not hesitate to destroy their own cultural heritage and wipe out their own historical memory, without showing any remorse.

In my speech I will talk briefly about the following topics:

• The state of NLA before the fall of the dictatorship

• What really happened on 10 and 12 April after the collapse of the former regime

• The role of the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) headed by Paul Bremer

• The role of the Ministry of Culture

• Aid promises made by some foreign governments

• The reactions of international organizations

• And, finally, the policies of the new administration to rebuild and modernize NLA

The State of Iraq National Library and Archive Before the Downfall of the Dictator

The role and services of NLA deteriorated sharply immediately after the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War in 1980. The dictator placed Iraq's material and human resources in the service of his war of aggression against neighboring Iran.

The Ba'ath regime was backward and anti-modernist in its political, social, and cultural orientations. It opposed and abhorred multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity, peaceful coexistence, and solidarity among the nations. Culture and education [were] subjected to ideological needs; this explains why NLA was very conservative in its policy of selecting its collections of publications and archival materials. Thousands of publications were kept away from library readers, especially liberal, Marxist, Kurdish, and Shi'i books.

All former director generals of NLA were members of the ruling Ba'ath party. In recent years, the regime planted some secret police agents in NLA to monitor the activities of scholars and university students. As a result, the numbers of library readers decreased rapidly. At the time, the Ba'ath regime's minister of culture, Hamid Yuosif Hammadi, who despised progressive culture in general, and NLA and its staff in particular, publicly named NLA as the cemetery of books. It is his words that I have used as the title of my speech.

NLA's Difficulties Between 1980 and 2003

NLA did not have an adequate budget, and therefore it could not meet the basic needs of a public library, let alone a national library. Everything was of bad quality (equipment, furniture, and other facilities). In 1987 the Ba'ath regime decided to cut down its financial spending on culture. As a result, National Archive amalgamated with the National Library to form what is known now as the house of books and documents (i.e., NLA).

In terms of book-collections development, NLA is 30 years behind, and this includes all kinds of publications in all subjects. NLA purchased very few publications. It acquired most of its new publications through its legal deposit department, and through donations and exchange of publications with some foreign libraries. The content and quality of these publications were often poor and did not satisfy the demands of the readers. The use of modern equipment was limited and confined to some microfilm machines and some computers. It is worth noting that most of this equipment was brought to the library in recent years through the mechanism of oil-for-food program that existed during the sanctions years.

Though there was a reproduction policy in the form of filming archival documents, records, and some old periodicals, NLA had no preservation policy to upkeep its collections of publications, archival materials, maps, and photographs. In other words, there was no chemical (wet) laboratory. Even the dry laboratory was shut down 10 years ago.

The Ministry of Culture removed all air conditioning and ventilation systems from many parts of NLA, including the repositories of books and archival materials. This had catastrophic effects on the conditions of these materials. It had also a negative impact on many librarians and archivists, who worked inside the repositories. They suffered from allergies and exhaustion because of dust and high temperature, which could reach 60 C in the summer, and 2 C below zero in the winter.

NLA never implemented any new program of modernization in its services and systems. Any librarian or archivist who endeavored to or even thought of modernizing NLA was quickly transferred to other institutions. Human resourses were in bad shape. The staffs were not retrained to update their knowledge or to develop their skills. There was a shortage of employees in general and in qualified librarians and archivists in particular. Only a few loyal librarians and archivists were sent abroad supposedly for training. Almost all of them learned nothing from their training courses.

NLA suffered from other difficulties. It was isolated from the community of national libraries and archives. We lost our membership at IFLA and ICA, because the regime refused to pay the annual subscriptions. The average age of a librarian/archivist was very high. The average monthly wage of a librarian/
archivist was about $3 a month. Corruption was a widespread phenomenon. Scholars and students bribed librarians and archivists to have quick access to particular publications and records.

What Really Happened on 10 and 12 April Following the Collapse of the Ba'ath Regime

First of all, I must talk about the former DG [director general]. The former DG, Raad Bander, who was Saddam's favorite personal poet, neglected his duties. He was irresponsible when he decided to transfer a large portion of Ottoman and Monarchical archives to the basement of the General Board of Tourism, while leaving the rest of the library and archival materials at the old building.

The former DG had other options insofar as the protection of library and archival materials was concerned. [The] NLA building is surrounded by several mosques. These mosques were, and are, the safest places in the country in peacetime and in wartime alike. The former DG could have saved the contents of the NLA by transferring them to these mosques. This was a practical and realistic option. It was, and it is, always easy to persuade the keepers of worship places (mosques and churches) to help with important cultural matters, such as storing and protecting NLA's publications and archival materials. Mosques and other religious institutions have been well-known for serving social and cultural activities of the community. Several mosques were in close proximity to NLA. The nearest mosque was just across the road, while the furthest one was 600 meters away. Because of the proximity factor, it was very easy to transfer the contents of NLA to these mosques. Moreover, the removal operation would not cost a lot of money.

Role of the U.S. Army

I personally reject all conspiracy theories propagated by Saddam's loyalists that the Americans and the Kuwaitis planned or were responsible for the lootings and the burnings of NLA and other cultural and educational institutions. It is true that the Americans, as occupiers and according to international laws, neglected their duties to safeguard Iraq's cultural heritage and must accept responsibility for what happened. However, it was some Iraqis who carried out the destruction and the lootings of NLA and other institutions. Almost all of these saboteurs were loyal to Saddam Hussein.

On 10 April, U.S. military vehicles and tanks entered the building. This development coincided with the collapse of the Saddam regime. The first thing the U.S. soldiers did was to destroy Saddam's statue that stood in the front of the NLA main building. When departing, U.S. soldiers left the building without any protection whatsoever. Minutes later, several parts of the NLA building were engulfed in flames. Some people embarked on looting equipments and anything of value. Two days later, the same scenario was repeated.

As a direct result of the two fires and lootings, the National Archive lost about 60 percent of its archival materials. In one word, it was a national disaster on a large scale. These losses cannot be compensated. They formed modern Iraq's historical memory. The National Library lost about 25 percent of its publications, including rare books and newspapers. NLA lost almost all of its collections of historical photographs and maps.

One can divide NLA losses into two categories: the first one cultural-intellectual, and the other material. I mean, by cultural-intellectual losses, all missing and destroyed rare books, old journals, archival documents, and records as well as historical photographs and maps. What I mean by material losses is the structural damages that the NLA building suffered, and the lootings and destruction of all equipment (including microfilm machines, cameras, photocopiers, printers, typewriters, illuminating machine, and furniture). NLA was really lucky that its book stacks remained intact. However, the book stacks were in a state of disarray. Hundreds of books and journals were scattered on the floors. Thick soot and dust covered the surfaces of collections, files, and shelves. Library and archive cards placed in wooden catalog cabinets were also scattered on the floors. Thousands of similar cards were ruined.

The question is whether these destructive acts were planned.

Having conducted a long investigation and [having] interviewed several eyewitnesses, I can say that some of the burning and looting acts were not planned, while others were well-planned in advance. On the one side, some ignorant people took anything they could carry with them, while destroying some other things which they could not take. As a result of their actions, one or two small-scale fires broke out in some places. On the other side, some people loyal to the old regime set fire to the Republican Archive, and some other departments such as the reproduction one. As a result, the contents of the Republican Archive were turned into ashes. The Republican Archive was of a great value politically as well as historically. Apart from covering the history of the Ba'ath Party since it seized power in 1963, this archive contained the transcripts of all court-martials set up by the Ba'ath regime for the trial of its opponents. I agree with the conclusion made by the UNESCO and the Library of Congress teams that the burning of the Republican Archive was well-organized, as evidence of using incendiary materials in the fires was found.

NLA's losses did not stop there. [For] a few weeks, because of wrong decisions made by some senior [staff members], who did not inform the representatives of the CPA of the whereabouts of the remaining archival materials and rare books, some people, who were aware of their existence, began to loot these materials from the basement of the General Board of Tourism. The looters took almost all rare books as well as thousands of archival records and documents. Apparently, to cover their crime, they flooded the basement by breaking some water pipes. The remaining documents and records were greatly damaged, resulting in significant losses.

Where can one find these stolen materials from NLA? If we study the type of the missing materials, we can see that the looters must be well-educated. They knew what to take and where to find it. All the neighboring countries acquired our library and archival materials from smugglers. The smugglers seemed to know what kind of historical documents and records that the neighboring countries wanted to obtain. Many documents and records concerning Iraq's relations with Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia were missing. Many missing archival materials dealt with the sensitive issue of border disputes.

The Role of CPA

The reign of CPA lasted 1 year. Cultural matters were at the bottom of CPA's priorities. The budget of the Ministry of Culture was one of the lowest compared with other ministries. From May 2003 to June 2004, the CPA appointed three senior cultural advisors: one American and two Italians.

The three cultural advisors tried to help NLA as much as they could, but their priority was the Iraqi Museum. CPA was under international pressure to safeguard Iraq's ... antiquities, which were being looted on a large scale. World media was focused on the museums and historical sites. The cultural advisor was helped by Mr. Wishyar Muhammed, who worked as a library advisor. The cultural advisors' steps to help NLA [were] simple and as follows:

1. To protect as [many] publications, documents, and records as possible by hiring some guards and providing some guns and ammunition.

2. To find a new site for INLA, which had to be a spectacular building in order to reflect the cultural identity and the orientation of the new Iraq. The CPA set up a special committee to translate the reconstruction project of the new NLA into reality.

3. To encourage INLA staff to gradually return to their normal work. For this purpose, the CPA formed a committee of experts on libraries. The members of the committee were lazy and old-fashioned.

In coordination with CPA, a team of three specialists from the Library of Congress (LC) visited Baghdad on 27 October. The visit, which [was] funded by the U.S. Department of State, lasted 1 week during which the LC team assessed the damages NLA suffered in mid-April. The team's main objective was to advise CPA and Iraq's Ministry of Culture on the future of NLA. In their report, the LC team endorsed the idea of turning the Senior Officers' Club into the new site for NL. During its visit, the LC team promised to provide NLA with training and equipment. It also publicly confirmed that the U.S. Department of State agreed to sponsor the reconstruction of the new NL.

The LC team nominated a university lecturer as the new DG. The CPA and LC team put pressure on the Iraqi minister of culture to instantly appoint their nominee as the new DG. The minister resisted their pressure, until he selected me as the new DG. He was looking for an educated young man who had no link with the former regime and who finished his higher education in Europe. The minister's decision was not welcomed by the LC team and the CPA advisors. This can explain why the LC refrained from directly contacting NLA.

Assessment of CPA's Role

As far as NLA is concerned, CPA failed in implementing its steps. At the beginning, CPA cultural advisors succeeded in obtaining a new site for INLA, after securing the approval of Paul Bremer, the civilian governor. The new site, the Senior Officers' Club, was a huge compound and could be easily transformed into a great National Library. I took the responsibility for the administration and protection of the new site in February 2004, without receiving enough support from the CPA cultural advisors. I did not have enough money, weapons, or ammunition. Moreover, some U.S. military units removed all concrete barriers that protected the new site. It became easy for Saddam's loyalists to attack the new site.

I warned the CPA cultural advisors that I could lose possession of the site if they did not give me enough support. Three months later, and as I expected, we lost the new site when Mr. Bremer changed his mind and decided to take the Senior Officers' Club from NLA and give it to the Ministry of Justice. Thus, the project of reconstructing a new site for NLA came to an abrupt end. In the meantime, we wasted a lot of money, efforts, and time.

The Experts' Committee also failed to run the library and archive or to put forward a plan of action. The relations between the staff of the library and archive and the committee members were bad. It is worth mentioning that Mr. Wishyar was the only one from CPA who tried to help NLA as much as he could.

Ministry of Culture

Role of the Ministry During the CPA Period

The Ministry of Culture had a very small budget. The minister had limited authority. He had to consult the CPA cultural advisors whenever he wished to take an action. The policy and the budget of the Ministry of Culture were decided by CPA. The minister of culture, he instructed and encouraged all director generals to take the initiative in reconstructing their institutions and to do what they think is good for the new Iraq. I ignored CPA instructions as much as I could. I put forward my own 6-month plan to reopen the main reading room at the library. Behind the back of the CPA cultural advisors, I dissolved the useless Experts Committee.

Role of the Ministry After the Transfer of Power

Things began to improve gradually when the Ministry of Culture became independent of CPA. However, ministers' hands were tied by policies set by CPA. We got more financial and moral support from the Ministry. The minister focused his attention on establishing close links with the outside world. We benefited from his foreign visits. For example, the minister persuaded the Czech government to help the National Library. I accompanied the minister in his official visit to Prague, where we met and talked to the Czech minister of culture.

The priority of the Ministry of Culture was to find a new site for the National Library after losing the Officers' Club. Unlike CPA, it succeeded in achieving this task. The minister of culture got the approval of the prime minister and backing of the rest of the Iraqi cabinet for the project of turning the headquarter of the Ministry of Defence into a new site for NLA. Now we have a great historical site. Its buildings were constructed by the British in the early 1920s. We need to renovate the site, and we have asked the international community and UNESCO to fund this vital cultural project.

Aid from Foreign Governments

Promises of help were made by some countries:

• Japan promised last year to help with the setup of an electronic database and the purchase of necessary equipment for the National Library.

• The French government expressed its willingness to help the National Library through the Ministry of Culture.

• As I mentioned earlier, the U.S. government, through the Department of State, promised to sponsor the reconstruction of NLA. I feel that the Department of State will not fulfill its promise. Neither LC nor [the Department of State] want to establish direct contact with NLA. The Library of Congress team seems to have forgotten its promises of aids.

• The British Library showed its willingness to train some Iraqi librarians, but the British Consul was not interested in funding the project.

• The only country which I feel will fulfill its promises is the Czech Republic. [In mid-October], we [sent] four archivists to be trained in Prague.

International Organizations

All international organizations, which we used to be one of their members, such as IFLA, and ICA, have not made serious attempts to help or to establish direct or indirect contacts with NLA.


On 2 September 2003, the UNESCO Executive Board approved the establishment of the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage in Iraq. The aim of the committee was to evaluate the post-conflict assistance in the conservation of cultural heritage in Iraq and to coordinate activities and efforts to help Iraqi cultural institutions. It took the committee 9 months to hold its first plenary session (24—25 May 2004). One of the seven objectives set by the committee was to assist the minister of culture to devise a cooperation mechanism and network of international partners and stakeholders aiming at the rehabilitation of the National Library and Archive, as well as other libraries and archives in the country, including their conditions assessment, their preventive conservation, the provision of publications, data collection, and management tools, as well as training in particular [areas] providing appropriate digital library cataloging system. The responsibility of UNESCO was to contribute to the preparation of a comprehensive plan of action in full accordance with Iraqi priorities and needs, and contribute, to this end, a specific expert committee under its auspices in cooperation with ICA and IFLA, and all the Iraqi concerned authorities.

The specific expert committee was not formed, and UNESCO avoided contacting the National Library until August. Only [in September], UNESCO began to show some real interest in helping the National Library.



It is an Irish-American organization. It was the first NGO which came to our rescue. It funded and supervised the project of cleaning our building from all debris and rubble.

Un Ponte Per...

It is an Italian organization which ... started its charity works [in] 1992. Un Ponte Per... was another NGO that came to our rescue. The head of its office in Baghdad, Simona Terrota, put forward a four-phase plan to help the National Library, with the help of some Italian experts. As a result of our cooperation with Un Ponte Per..., the first and the second phases, which were focused on inventorying, cataloging, and training, were implemented. For instance, Un Ponte Per... provided the cataloging workstation with computers, scanners, printers, chairs, and tables as well as training of librarians. It also funded the hiring of 15 new librarians.

Part A of phase 3 was complete, which was to connect the library to the Internet and [purchase] the necessary equipment. Unfortunately, largely because of the kidnapping of Miss Simona and her colleagues by a terrorist organization, the remaining phases of the project were halted. We hope that we can complete the project as soon as possible.

New Administration and New Policies

Following the dismissal of the former director general because of his close links with the Saddam regime, the cultural advisors at CPA and the LC wanted to impose their own candidate for the vacant position.

I was the candidate of the Ministry of Culture. At the end, the minister of culture resisted CPA pressure and selected me as the new director general. I was the youngest director general in the history of Iraq National Library. Thus, on 1 December 2003, a new administration for NLA came into being.

When I was officially appointed as the new DG, NLA faced several challenges. It was the most damaged cultural institution in the country. The building was in a ruinous state; there was no money, no water, no electricity, no papers, no pens, no furniture (apart [from] 50 plastic chairs). The morale of employees [was] very low. Three departments out of 18 ... were half-functioning. The majority of the employees stayed at home. Only a handful of the librarians tried to do something. The committee of experts set up by CPA was a talking shop and failed to get the trust and respect of NL staff.

We had to work on [four] fronts simultaneously:

1. The development of human resources through training courses and hiring new librarians and archivists

2. The technical modernization of NLA by bringing in new equipment and introducing new service systems

3. Finding a new site for NLA, a site [that] would reflect its cultural importance in the new Iraq

4. Finding some money to start our work

I began to hold a series of meetings with the heads of library and archive departments in order to obtain a clearer idea of the actual situation. In light of these meetings I put forward a two-stage plan of action. The first stage consisted of the following steps:

• I directed the technicians to work very hard to restore some electricity and water supply as soon as possible.

• I ordered all staff to work 6 days every week.

• I asked the Ministry of Culture to provide me with some financial assistance. I spent the money on purchasing furniture, papers, and some equipment such as computers, printers, and typewriters.

• I asked all heads of departments to write reports in which they had to explain their problems and difficulties as well as what
was required to reopen their departments.

• I removed all corrupt and lazy elements from positions of responsibility, while promoting a number of qualified young female staff to higher positions. I also focused my attention on lifting the morale of male and female staff alike. The culture of taking orders was dominant. Staff members were unable to and sometimes afraid of taking initiative. I have encouraged them to be proactive and creative. The new culture has begun gradually but steadily to take root in the internal life of NLA.

• I reorganized the structure of the National Library and Archive as the first step in the long process of modernizing our institution. I radically changed the mechanisms of decision making and implementation by democratizing them. Now, librarians and archivists elect their own representatives who will participate at the meetings of the council of managers, where decisions are made. These representatives can monitor all activities within NLA and meet the DG anytime they want.

In the second stage, we devoted our time and efforts to reopen the library's main reading room for students and scholars within the space of 6 months. We worked very hard under unhealthy and harsh conditions and without any support from outside. Soot and dust were everywhere; we smelled and tasted them. They were in our breath, eyes, food, and water; they were on the walls and the ceilings.

We had other serious problems. Our new yearly budget for 2004, set by the CPA financial advisors, was very small. It did not exceed $70,000. The small budget had to cover everything, including the purchase of furniture, equipment, papers, and pens; the payment of water and electricity bills; and the hiring of workers and new librarians.

We had, and still have, a serious shortage of manpower, in general, and qualified librarians and archivists, in particular. As I mentioned, library and archive collections were in disarray. Tens of thousands of book and records cards were either burnt or scattered on the floors. We did not have any equipment. We were only able to buy five computers and two printers. We had no air conditioning or ventilation equipment. It was cold in the winter and very hot in the spring and the summer. Temperature could reach 60 C in the summer and below zero in the winter. We had just one old photocopy machine. There [was] no access to telephone, fax, or Internet. We were virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

These were the conditions inside the building. Outside the building, forces of darkness and ignorance, the blind-hearted terrorists, were waging a campaign of indiscriminate killings against all people regardless of their race, religion, age, and gender. On many occasions my staff could not come to work because roads and bridges were blocked as a result of bomb explosions, mortar shelling, and assassinations. These ugly scenes have become part of our everyday life. In August this year, our building was shelled. Four days before I came here, the terrorists placed some explosives [in] the basement just across the road. Fortunately, so far, no one of my staff [has been] harmed. Haifa Street, which is the stronghold of foreign Arab terrorists and Saddam's loyalists, is less than one kilometer away from our building. This street has seen several bloody confrontations between the terrorists, on the one side, and the coalition army and Iraqi forces, on the other side. On many occasions, I asked my employees to evacuate the building. Sometimes, I was not able to do so because of the deterioration of the security situation. Nevertheless, the next day, we came back to do our duty as usual. This is the way we live, and this is the condition under which we work every day.

Concluding Remarks

National libraries play a significant role in the development of all countries.

There is a pressing need now to form a new progressive Iraqi culture to fill a cultural vacuum created by the downfall of the Saddam regime. This explains why the modernization of the NLA is a priority. The new culture will help to put an end to the remnant of the totalitarian values and concepts that still dominate the minds, spirits, and behavior of a large number of Iraqis, including the educated, university students, and scholars.

We, as NLA, want to participate in the formation of the new secular, liberal, multidimensional culture with the aim of containing all backward and anti-modern cultural values and theories, which neighboring countries, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, exported to our country. The neighboring countries put a lot of efforts to dominate Iraqi cultural life through financing some cultural projects, distributing printed publications, and strengthening their mass media.

We are aware that the new Iraq needs a new NLA. We must not only expand our services, but also develop our cultural role and goals. We must not be a mere storage [place] for books and documents. We must engage in a variety of cultural activities (e.g., holding art exhibitions, book fairs, and seminars as well as providing training courses and Internet and computer services free of charge) to win over the young generation. We hope our new site on the historical shores of River Tigris will inspire young Iraqis, who will use our services to create great literary and scientific works.

I am not ashamed to ask for the help of the international community. Iraq's culture is part of the world culture; our historical memory is part of your historical memory. The European experience illustrates that fascism was not a local threat, and the destruction of fascism and the reconstruction of postwar Europe was the duty of the progressive forces in the world.

At the conclusion, I would like to thank very much the organizers of this important event for inviting me, and giving me this golden opportunity to tell the story of the Cemetery of Books.

Thank you all for listening.


Saad Eskander is director general of Iraq's National Library and Archive. His e-mail address is
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