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4/3/2015 10:16:21 PM

Biblioclasm*: ISIS Attacks Libraries

Biblioclasm: "the destruction of books, especially the Bible. — biblioclast, n."  

“During the first hours of any war the information that profoundly shocks the planet can be summed up in four words: The library is burning.”
Lucien X. Polastron, Books on Fire, 235 (2007).

We have all heard and seen the horrors of the recent conflict in Iraq and Syria. In addition to the abhorrent human suffering, it is estimated that more than 100,000 books and manuscripts have been burned by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since last December. Given the scale of the human tragedy, the destruction of books is not likely to be what most “profoundly shocks the planet.” Yet, this heinous destruction should not go unnoticed. As described by the UNESCO Director-General: “[this] cultural cleansing . . .adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities, [and] seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

At about the same time as we watched video of the destruction of Mosul Museum in Iraq, the Mosul Library was also destroyed. Some have called this “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.” On February 22nd, 2015, improvised incendiary devices were detonated in the Library causing fires that consumed over 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. Many of these works appeared on the UNESCO “rarities” list. Well-respected members of the Mosul community pleaded with ISIS militants not to destroy the library, but in the end were unable to prevent it.

This is not the first time that the Mosul Library has been destroyed. During the U.S. Invasion in 2003, mobs ransacked the library, but nearby residents protected much of the collection, hiding books in their homes. This time, however, ISIS has declared that any person attempting similar preservation efforts will face execution. Many Iraqis have evoked the adage “may the books be a sacrifice for the people” in the face of this adversity.

Among the materials lost were “manuscripts from the 18th century, Syriac books printed in Iraq’s first printing house in the 19th century, books from the Ottoman era, Iraqi newspapers from the early 20th century, and treasured antiques like an astrolabe and sand glass used by the ancient Arabs.” UNESCO reported the loss of law and philosophy texts. The library also contained materials on subjects traditionally censored in Iraq, such as Communism, socialism, and sex – housed in special rooms devoted to the private collections of as many as one hundred Iraqi founding families. Even the Library’s website has been suspended.

The destruction of the Mosul Library represents one of a series of attacks on libraries, bookstores, and university collections in Iraq and Syria. Some institutions having sustained particularly heavy damage include “the archives of a Sunni Muslim Library, the library of the 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers, and the Mosul Museum Library with works dating back to 5000 BC.” Only months before the Mosul Library destruction, ISIS denounced Mosul University, which was closed and converted to barracks, “along with the colleges of law, fine arts, physical education, languages, social sciences and archaeology.” Each school, including the school of law, had its own library, which was looted. In the Mosul University Central Library, ISIS militants “constructed a huge pyre of scientific and cultural texts as university students watched in horror.”

While UNESCO specifically mentioned the loss of legal texts in Mosul, many relevant legal documents are preserved online through the Iraqi Local Governance Law Library, “including local laws, orders, decisions, and regulations now being published by provinces in monthly legal gazettes”. However, legal documents published before 2010 are not available there. The Iraq Legal Database, created in 2008, contains a wealth of additional information, including “approximately 30,000 legal texts and more than 7,000 laws, 4,000 ministerial decrees, 3,000 regulations, and 5,000 declarations passed since 1917.” However, the website does not appear to be accessible at this time.

Rebuilding or replacing a physical collection in a region currently a “self-declared ISIS caliphate” may well be impossible or simply result in more destruction. Organizations and foreign governments, are seeking to prevent further loss. Partially in response to the destruction caused by ISIS, the U.S. House of Representatives recently introduced H. R. 1493, “a bill to protect and preserve international cultural property at risk due to political instability, armed conflict, or natural or other disasters. . .” This bill aims to “coordinate and promote efforts to protect international cultural property” by increasing communication between relevant stakeholders and reducing the incentive to steal cultural property by reducing consumer demand for trafficked and illegally-traded artifacts.

Some international organizations are looking for ways to help mitigate the harm already done. The Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) has embarked on an ambitious task called Project Mosul, reconstructing Mosul’s Cultural Artifacts in a four-dimensional virtual museum. Only two weeks after the destruction of the Mosul Library, “researchers from ITN-DCH, IAPP, and 4D-CH-WORLD” began the project, crowd-sourcing photographs of the artifacts and creating digital exhibits. “The team is [] calling on volunteers to help them to sort and tag pictures, process them, [and] take care of coding.” While a digital rendering cannot completely replace an original, at least items of cultural significance will be available in some form to future generations.

Similar digital reconstruction projects might provide hope for recreating some of the rare print volumes lost in Mosul and the surrounding areas. One Dominican Monk, Father Najeeb Micheel, has been photographing and digitizing early Christian texts in Iraq “with help from Father Stewart’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota.” Unfortunately, he was forced to stop his work and flee ISIS with only one truck of books and artifacts from the 50,000-volume collection. Perhaps through a crowd-sourcing effort, more photographs and scanned images can be used to revive bits of the print materials that were lost.

© AJ Blechner, 2015. Reference/Outreach Librarian, University of Miami Law Library, Coral Gables, Florida. ablechner@law.miami.edu.

Posted By AJ Blechner at 4/3/2015 10:16:21 PM  0 Comments