Monday, August 31, 2009

Iraq National Library and Archive

In 2006-07, Saad Eskander, the Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), kept a diary that the British Library posted online. The entries matter-of-factly chronicle Dr. Eskander's efforts to create an institution that comprehensively documents all aspects of Iraqi history, politics, and culture, bolsters democracy by ensuring free access to information, and contributes to the development of an open and egalitarian society. They also illuminate the appalling realities of life for Dr. Eskander and his staff: bombings (at home, on the streets, and at INLA itself), sniper fire, death threats, the kidnapping and murder of relatives, and death at the hands of sectarian death squads and other terrorists.

It's a non-stop chronicle of horror, but the most stunning thing about the diary is the persistence of Dr. Eskander and his staff: despite the omnipresent danger, INLA's librarians, archivists, and other staff kept coming to work day after day. They kept collecting archival materials for the Baghdad Memory Project, developing the INLA Web site, digitizing publications, theses, and dissertations, and preparing exhibits. They also kept recovering materials lost or damaged as a result of the looting that took place in late 2003.

Although life in Baghdad remains dangerous, INLA continues to recover and grow. Staff have started a new electronic journal and are publishing bibliographic reference works, accessioning archival government records, microfilming publications, conserving water-damaged Ottoman records, and taking advantage of new computers and other technology investments. The building housing INLA has a new generator and HVAC system, and approximately 900 people now visit INLA every month. On top of all this, Dr. Eskander is doggedly fighting to get the United States to turn over Iraqi government records that U.S. forces seized in late 2003 and early 2004.

People think that archivists are quiet, retiring souls, and it's true that our professions attract a disproportionate number of quiet, introspective souls. However, they also attract people whose dedication and vision can lead to greatness. I stand in awe of Dr. Eskander and his colleagues.

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