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Monday, December 15, 2008

Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraqi National Library & Archives

Last week, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals made Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archive since 2003, an Honorary Fellow in a moving ceremony at the British Library. The Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals usually awards its Honorary Fellowships in October, but Dr. Eskander could not attend – and it seems appropriate that he received the award during the Taking Liberties exhibition at the BL, celebrating the 60th anniversary of UDHR. It was particularly appropriate that the ceremony took place at the BL.

The British Library have been working with the Iraqi National Library and Archive since 2004 (when it seemed like stabilisation might occur quickly). They provided surrogate copies, from their own collections, of documents and books that had been destroyed, including India Office records for 1914-21, which covered the creation of the Iraqi state, and rare books and manuscripts of national significance. In 2007, the BL spearheaded an appeal for donations of university textbooks in social sciences, receiving an overwhelming response. Aided by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, the BL has digitised 20,000 pages of India Office records and 300 maps of Iraq from its collection to add to the INLA’s digitisation project. The INLA’s digitisation work is so advanced that it has recently signed an agreement with the Library of Congress to participate in a global digitisation project.

In 2003, the INLA was the most damaged cultural institution in Iraq. Even before the invasion, its collections were 30 years out of date due to heavy censorship and a lack of an accession policy. During and just after the invasion, 60% of the archives, 25% of ordinary collections and almost all rare books were looted. In 2004, the library had re-opened its doors despite having few facilities and with the collections still in disarray. In 2006-07, it remained open under direct bombing, sniper fire and even occupation by the Iraqi army. Five library staff have been unlawfully killed since 2003, as have 69 of their relatives; four staff have been kidnapped, and they have faced over 120 threats of death and displacement. And yet the staff numbers have continued to grow, from 95 in 2003 up to 425, with increasing numbers of qualified staff, who have training opportunities within the library and with international partners. They are unionised within a democratised internal structure.

Saad Eskander, who implements these changes, was appointed director of the INLA in 2003. From November 2006 to July 2007, he wrote a blog about the reconstruction of the library and archive, and about providing access to the collections while under attack. Email, Dr. Eskander said, acted as a connection to the outside world, while the president of CILIP described the blogs as “powerful, independent and courageous witness.” For Dr. Eskander, he added work of the library is deeply involved in “the formation of national identity and civil society, and in the dissemination of democratic and humanistic values.”

Read more about the Archive's amazing survival in The Nation, about its collections in the Journal of Ottoman Calligraphy, about documents removed from Iraq in WITNESS Media Archive and in an essay by Dr. Eskander, and a full report on Iraqi libraries from the University of Chicago. And you can join the INLA's Facebook group for news updates.

Tomorrow: Dr. Eskander's speech at the British Library. Later in the week: a q&a with Dr. Eskander -- post your questions for him in the comments!

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