Classic Bildungsroman

Literary Excavations

Topical Tuesday: A Rather Serious Beginning



The Library During Times of Armed Conflict:

A look at Iraq’s National Library and Archives

The nineteenth century brought the greatest growth of libraries and other cultural institutions in human history. The twentieth century brought a trend of destruction of these institutions as acts of war (Moustafa, 2014, p. 16). This trend appears to continue as we enter the twenty-first century. The goal of this post series is to gain a clearer understanding of the role of libraries during times of war, and political and social upheaval. The posts will focus specifically on the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA) in three periods: before 2003, during the U.S. occupation and Iraqi liberation of 2003, and the events following 2003. The posts will discuss the library’s role under the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, the cultural implications of the destruction of the library during 2003, and efforts to rebuild by Saad Eskander and his staff. Finally, they will explore international law regarding the destruction of cultural institutions and property.

Introduction, The historical destruction of libraries:

Beginning in the ancient world, libraries have always been associated with civilization. Libraries both represent and promote the intellectual and cultural growth of their communities. Considering this, it is unsurprising that libraries are often targeted in times of war and revolution. The destruction of these cultural repositories represents a quest for cultural dominance, wherein one culture “others” another, rather than recognizing it as part of a greater, shared human culture.  In fact, the term “cultural cleansing” first came into popular use after the blatant destruction of such institutions during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This kind of destruction seeks to overpower and eliminate an entire culture from human history. Intellectually, this represents what Zgonjanin (2005) terms the complex concept of “cultural suicide” (p.137). Understood simply, it is an intense act of hatred.

There are many examples of this, ranging from the ancient world and reaching all the way to the present day. The several burnings and eventual decline of the ancient Library of Alexandria are quite famous. Today the library is recognized as a symbol for the reckless destruction of knowledge. The Nalanda University complex, greatest repository of Buddhist knowledge during its time, was destroyed in 1193 AD by Turkic Muslim invaders. This is cited as a key moment in the decline of Buddhism in India. In 1548 AD, the destruction of Glasney College effectively ended intellectual pursuits keeping alive the Cornish language and cultural identity. In 1984, the Sikh Reference Library was destroyed after a failed attempt to gain political information. Rare books and manuscripts containing Sikh history, religion and culture were destroyed. (Wikipedia, n.d.) In 1992, during the Balkan Wars, the National and Academic Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo was singled out for destruction, along with many other cultural institutions. A devastating ninety percent of the library’s collection and catalog was destroyed, and efforts to rebuild failed. (Zgonjanin, 2005, p. 135)

These are only a few of the many examples, yet these events had a great impact on society. This is because libraries are irrevocably tied to the communities they serve. Their materials directly reflect the history and current needs of the people, and often serve as a point of local and national pride. Libraries are often constructed in central locations, and designed to emphasize the importance of the information housed within. While they certainly function as places of knowledge and education, libraries are undeniable symbols. They provide access to important information, and contain the collective memory and aspirations of their communities (Rayward & Jenkins, 2007, p. 361).

  1. Iraq’s National Library and Archives preceding the events of 2003:

1a. Brief political and social background of Iraq:

The state of the Iraq National Library and Archives (from now on referred to as INLA) was heavily affected by the political and social issues in Iraq. Leading up to the events of 2003, Iraq was under the rule of Saddam Hussein. He was the leader of the Ba’ath regime, a radical political party whose primary goal is the “formation of a single Arab socialist nation” (“Ba’th Party,” n.d.). He employed the use of secret police who suppressed any opposition to his rule. He also created a personality cult around himself, which many followed. Although technically the President of Iraq, Saddam was a dictator whose “brutal rule was marked by costly and unsuccessful wars against neighboring countries” (“Saddam Hussein,” n.d., para 1). His occupation of Kuwait led to a worldwide trade embargo on Iraq administered by the United Nations (UN). His refusal to leave Kuwait triggered the Persian Gulf War in 1991, which ended with Iraq’s defeat. His domestic policies at the time were already suppressive and violent toward the Shi’ites and Kurds of Iraq. After the Persian Gulf War, these groups began a rebellion. Many were killed and forced to flee from their homes.

Under terms of a cease-fire, Iraq was prohibited from producing or dealing in weapons of mass destruction. When Saddam continued to be noncompliant, a four-day airstrike was ordered in 1998 by the United States and Great Britain. Both countries declared support for any Iraqi party seeking to oppose Saddam, and Iraq was effectively closed to the UN. After these events, Saddam’s rhetoric became increasingly anti-American and his domestic policies more aggressive. While he was feared by many that he ruled, he was also supported by many in the Arab world as one of the few willing to stand up to America and the West. (“Saddam Hussein,” n.d.)

1b. The poor conditions and practices within INLA under Saddam Hussein

It is easy to imagine that this was a dark time for liberal education and freedom of information within INLA. For one, the budget was drastically reduced (Kingsley, 2013), which made it impossible for the library to meet the needs of its community. Any equipment was old and of poor quality, and currency of the library’s publications was virtually nonexistent. Preservation labs were shut down, and with the removal of air conditioning and ventilation systems, many materials took on serious damage. The poor working conditions caused some staff members to leave INLA, and those who remained suffered from severe allergies and exhaustion from the extreme temperatures in the summer and winter. No new programs were implemented during this time, and any librarians seeking to update or modernize were quickly transferred somewhere else. Employees were not sent for routine training during this time, and soon there was a serious lack of qualified librarians and archivists. Without money to pay for membership in IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) and ICA (International Communication Association), INLA became isolated from the library community. Employee salaries amounted to about $3 a month, and corruption within the library was high. Many librarians and archivists took bribes from readers wishing to gain quick access to materials. (Eskander, 2004)

Perhaps the greatest issue was the surveillance culture of the Ba’ath party. Cultural and educational pursuits were imbued with the ideology of the regime, which “opposed and abhorred multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity, peaceful coexistence, and solidarity among the nations” (Eskander, 2004, p. 50). Old publications considered inappropriate or converse to the ideals of the regime were taken and locked away. Similarly, new publications were heavily scrutinized for their appropriateness. Many works considered too liberal, democratic, Kurdish or Shi’ite were censored, and any new publications needed the approval of the censorship authorities. To uphold these standards, the staff were closely monitored by the General Security Directorate. This led to low morale within the staff of the library. Many adhered to the conservative policies out of fear, and the dominant culture was submissive. (Eskander, 2004) The activities and reading habits of readers within the library were also watched by agents of the General Security Directorate planted within the main reading room (Kingsley, 2013). These readers were mostly students, scholars, and researchers whose intellectual pursuits were of great concern to the regime. Over time, this meant that readers visited the library with less frequency or not at all. In an article titled Iraq National Library and Archives: Inherited difficulties and new challenges, Saad Eskander (2011) summed up the situation:

“By firmly restricting access to information, by taking part in creating false national historical memory, by ignoring the written cultural heritage of ethnic and religious minorities and by refusing to keep a record of all the cultural and academic achievements of Iraqi intelligentsia, INLA became virtually an integral part of the former regime’s oppressive machine.” (p. 48)


*This topic to be continued next Topical Tuesday.



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Today, 21(11), pp.1, 50-52, 54. Retrieved from

Eskander, S. (Nov 2006-Jul 2007) Diary of Saad Eskander [Blog]. Retrieved


Eskander, S. (2011) Iraq National Library and Archive: Inherited difficulties and new challenges.

Alexandria, 22(1), 47-51. Retrieved from

Garcia, E.P. (2007). The destruction of a cultural heritage: With reference to the problems of

Iraq. New Library World, 108(7/8), 354-369. doi: 10.1108/03074800710763644

Kingsley, S. (Interviewer) & Eskander, S. (Interviewee). (2013). Interview with Saad Eskander,

Director of Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA) [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from:

Moustafa, L.H. (2013). Disaster management plans in Middle East libraries and archives in times

of war: Case studies of Iraq and Egypt. Library & Archival Security, 26(1-2), 15-35.


Rayward, W.B. & Jenkins, C. (2007). Libraries in times of war, revolution, and social change.

Library Trends, 55(3), 361-369. Retrieved from

Wikipedia List of destroyed libraries. (n.d.). Retrieved December 1, 2015 from Wikipedia:

Zgonjanin, S. (2005). The prosecution of war crimes for the destruction of libraries and archives

during times of armed conflict. Libraries & Culture, 40(2), 128-144. Stable URL:

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