... the country's National Library also had been ransacked

Karen Coyle, April 19, 2003

Although I am a librarian, and my life is motivated by a deep love and respect for libraries and the written word that they hold and preserve, when the war in Iraq began I gave no thought to libraries. I did not even know if Iraq had a national library, but in any case it never crossed my mind.

With the rest of the world I watched with horror the looting of Iraq's museum of antiquities; I saw the shattered glass cases, the smashed bits of stone and pottery. Like everyone else my first thoughts were: "how could anyone do this?" A hole developed in my heart, a weight fell on my chest. The horrors of war now spanned millennia.

Still, I did not think about libraries.

April 15, tax day, I woke to the voice of Amy Goodman, of NPR's Democracy Now, reading, in her distinctive way that lets you know that she is reading but not monotonously so, the words of a reporter in Baghdad describing the image of the Iraqi national library going up in flames. Robert Fisk's report described sheets of ancient manuscripts flying through the air. He ran to a US military outpost to report the disaster, but got no response.

I was still sleepy, still in bed, wondering if I had heard correctly. A few minutes later the same report was repeated, and the author interviewed. I sat up on the side of the bed, and burst into tears. The war in Iraq had gone beyond my ability to absorb its cruelty.

When I got to work I immediately cruised the internet to the standard news sites: CNN, AP news, Yahoo news, looking for the headline: National Library of Iraq Torched; Written History of an Ancient People Goes Up in Smoke. I didn't find it. Every few minutes I went back to the net compulsively, sure that the news would catch up with reality. It didn't. I began to doubt my morning experience, thinking I must not have been awake. Even the Democracy Now web site had no mention.

The next day I returned to the Democracy Now site and found the transcript of the report I had heard the morning before. I repeated my trawl of the news sites and still came up with nothing: no headlines, no stories. Finally, in one story about the looting of Iraq's historical treasures I found a single reference to the library: "... the country's National Library also had been ransacked."

"...the country's National Library also had been ransacked". This is hardly a sufficient obituary for the written word of hundreds of generations.

I wanted - needed - to know more. I still knew nothing about the national library, and had seen no articles dedicated to it, no pictures similar to those from the ruins of the museum. I need closure, but I couldn't find it. I scoured news reports about looting, and found almost nothing. I posted to a listserv of librarians that I was looking for information about this event and they came through. I ended up with two good news reports, the first from Robert Fisk, the reporter who had been interviewed by NPR and who wrote the story for The Independent in the UK. The next, also for an English paper, by Oliver Burkeman, writing from Washington. But what continued to amaze me is that there were no reports on this event in the US press. It wasn't entirely unknown because a few sentences that appeared here and there gave evidence that the information of the library's demise was available. An AP reporter, Charles J Hanley, produced an article entitled "Looters Ransack Iraq's National Library," but this report was not picked up by any newspapers that I could find.

At the same time articles continue to appear about the looting of the Iraqi museum. International agencies are now involved. The FBI will send over agents to track down stolen pieces. The museum and collector community is on the alert for shady characters trying to fence hot antiquities. Enough investigation has been done to know that some of the looters had keys to vaults, left their trucks parked outside, were able to lift and make off with stone statues weighing hundreds of pounds. Over a week later, national newspapers in the US are still printing letters to the editor condemning the Bush administration for failing to protect these priceless treasures while at the same time securing oil wells at distant and scattered sites.

But of the library, next to nothing.

In the beginning, there was the word; the spoken word, then the written word. The word came somewhat late in our development. It came after we had learned to create shelter for ourselves, to warm ourselves with fire, to hunt with tools we had crafted. The writing of words precipitated unfathomable changes in human society, and even more mysteriously, changes in who we are inside our own minds. To destroy the written word of a people is to erase its mind, to create a cultural amnesia. It is the ultimate act of ethnic cleansing.

If, as has been reported, the Iraqi national library has been gutted by flames, then the loss is incalculable. This is a tragedy of great proportions, like the burning of the library of Alexandria. But we will have to wait to find out because the news from Baghdad is sketchy, at best.

Below are the mentions of the National Library in news reports, in full.

April 16, 2003

Experts from the British Museum and the United Nations cultural agency are headed to Baghdad to help catalog Iraq's destroyed cultural treasures. Looting began last week as the regime fell, and by Monday, the country's National Library also had been ransacked.
Times Online:`Iraq in Brief: Museum mission April 16, 2003
The British Museum is to send six convervationists and three curators to Baghdad to assist the staff of the looted Iraqi National Museum. Fire damaged the Islamic Library and the National Library in the city on Monday.
New York Times: Experts' Pleas to Pentagon Didn't Save Museum
April 16, 2003, p. B5
Less publicized is the damage to Iraq's main library, the House of Wisdom, the repository of the country's historical archives, said Charles Tripp, a professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"This is really a terrible thing for Iraq," he said. "One of the problems has been establishing an identity, a place in history and in the future. If you lose those documents you are subject to remolding of history which will be extremely dangerous."

Salon.com News: The end of civilization
April 17, 2003

In the aftermath of a looting spree that stripped museums in Baghdad and Mosul, left the National Library a smoldering ruin and turned thousands of ancient Qurans at the Ministry for Religious Affairs to ashes, archaeologists and museum curators from arund the world are racing today to asses the damage and, where possible, to recover what has not been destroyed.

©Karen Coyle, 2003
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