The Library During Times of Armed Conflict:
A look at Iraq’s National Library and Archives
- Iraq’s National Library and Archives’ efforts to rebuild:
3a. Saad Eskander and INLA’s new culture:
When Saad Eskander assumed the role Director General of INLA following these events, he took drastic action. There was a major shortage of qualified, professional librarians and archivists in Iraq. He immediately hired dozens of young and recently graduated professionals (Kingsley, 2013). He made a point to hire both men and women, and to promote women to higher positions within INLA. He also fired those who had been convinced by the corruption of the library. (Eskander, 2011) Eskander sent many of his staff away for more training in places such as Italy, Czech Republic, Britain and the U.S. to reverse the lack of professional development. To circumvent the oppressive atmosphere that the Ba’athist regime had generated, Eskander also established democratic systems within the institution. Staff would be voted into positions as department heads and officials, instead of being appointed. (Kingsley, 2013) Slowly, these efforts helped Eskander transform a fearfully obedient staff into strong individuals unafraid to voice their opinions and seek improvements and modernization.
After re-training and improving the staff morale, the next problem to be tackled was the collection. Eskander threw out old collection policies in favor of more liberal, democratic ones. He sought to improve the existing collection by removing censorship policies and rejoining censored materials with the rest of the library. He also moved to purchase updated materials and began accepting book donations from foreign cultures and institutions. Critically important to these efforts, was the decision to declassify the records of the Ministry of Interior of the Ba’ath regime. In all endeavors, Eskander promoted full access to diverse information.
3b. The effects of outside forces on rebuilding:
Efforts to rebuild were complicated by the state of Iraq during the U.S. occupation. From November 2006 to July 2007, the British Library published blogs of Eskander’s diary. The diary detailed Eskander’s efforts to rebuild amid terrible working conditions and extreme violence. Staff received death threats on a regular basis, and some were victims of kidnapping and assassinations. Many of their family members were kidnapped or killed to intimidate staff, and INLA itself was under constant physical threat. On November 20, 2006, Eskander described the assassination of a young librarian who recently returned from studying web design in Florence, Italy. He was meant to design INLA’s website, and Eskander (2006) called him a “symbol of the modernization and reform process of the National Library and Archives” (p. 6). Almost daily, Eskander reported losses of electricity and Internet, as well as bombings and shootings outside the library. On July 31, 2007, Eskander lists the impacts of the violence on his staff for the year: “6 threats and displacement of staff; 3 damages to property (one burnt-down house and two hijacked vehicles); 2 unlawful arrest and torture by the National Guards; 1 unlawful death of close relative” (p. 116). Eskander hoped to reach other librarians and archivists outside of Iraq, and show them what his staff was experiencing. While the moral support INLA received as a result bolstered the staff, Eskander began to feel guilty. He worried that he was gaining fame and popularity by exploiting the suffering of his staff. This eventually caused him to discontinue the diary. (Eskander, 2006, p. 2) However, the diary served to reconnect the staff with their international colleagues, and demonstrated the importance of cultural institutions during times of political and social dissonance.
3c. Eskander’s idealism:
In his work, Eskander (2006) made it his goal to “turn it [INLA] into a true national institution in terms of providing new services, shouldering new responsibilities, extending its cultural activities…and increasing its cultural and academic impacts” (p. 2). He believed that his diary highlighted the heightened need for access to quality information during times of national crisis (Eskander, 2007, p. 2). Eskander emphasized how important it was for the Iraqi people to understand what had really happened so the nation could move on. The Iraqi community also needed a model of freedom and equality. (Eskander, 2011) In an article, he remarked on the recent life of INLA and explained, “The policies and functions promoted by these [cultural] institutions can, in their turn, influence the progress or regress of a society” (Eskander, 2011, p. 47). Eskander hoped that by transforming the staff from fearful and obedient, to proactive and inspired, INLA would in turn help to transform the greater culture of Iraq. (Eskander, 2011)
*This topic to be continued next Topical Tuesday.
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