Rebuilding Mosul’s Library Book by Book
A campaign to restore the holdings of the library of the University of Mosul has received an enthusiastic response since it began three months ago. Professors, students and private donors inside and outside Iraq are contributing books and other materials even before government military action to reclaim the city from Da’esh (Islamic State) has ended.
Islamic State seized the library when it captured Mosul in June of 2014, and made a show of destroying its books and manuscripts. “The destruction is complete,” said Obay al-Dewachi, president of the University of Mosul. “Almost 100 percent of the university’s library and holdings were destroyed.” Al-Dewachi has been running a University of Mosul campus in exile in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2015.
Many of the library’s older manuscripts had been digitized and backed up on servers, so they have not been entirely lost to posterity, said Mohammed Jassim, the library’s director, who has been working in Kirkuk for the past three years. Some manuscripts are intact because employees spirited them away when Islamic State captured Mosul.
The library contained 3,500 rare books dating as far back as the early 18th century. The library also had 5,000 government publications dating back to the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in 1921.
Most of the library’s holdings of about one million books were destroyed when U.S.-led coalition fighters launched an air strike on the library in March of 2016 because coalition forces believed it was being used as an Islamic State command center. In January of this year, as Iraqi forces reclaimed the university campus, Islamic State set fire to the library, apparently to destroy evidence about its operations.
“You can smell the soot from 500 meters away,” said Ali al-Baroodi, a lecturer in the translation department at the University of Mosul. “The books were piled in a corner and set on fire.”
After Da’esh captured the campus, it allowed students to continue their studies during the 2014 academic year, but only in a few subjects, such as medicine and dentistry. It closed the faculties of humanities subjects, such as fine arts and law, considering them un-Islamic.
The campaign to rebuild the university library began in February of this year, soon after coalition forces liberated the eastern part of the city, where the university’s campus is located. It was led by the Iraqi blogger Mosul Eye. So far the university has collected more than 6,000 books and has a pledge of 20 tons of books in response to the appeal made by Mosul Eye. A bookstore in Rouen, France, called Le Rêve de L’Escalier, or “The Dream of the Staircase,” also sent three packages of books.
“Not a single day passes without our receiving new offers,” Jassim said. “Basra University was the first to offer its help. More recently we got an offer from Dijlah University College, a private university in Baghdad. This is a great symbol of Iraq’s unity.”
The books range from medical journals to works on arts and literature, he said.
“We care more about the quality than the quantity,” Jassim said. “We check which books are the most useful for scholars, academics and students. We are now starting from zero. Modern resources are quite important, especially in scientific fields.”
The community at Baghdad College, a prestigious high school established by American Jesuits in 1932, has also been collecting books for the library. Anas Jaroo, 23, a software engineer and Baghdad College alumnus, donated 40 books on medicine and civil and computer engineering.
“My father, who is a retired physician, graduated from Mosul Medical College in 1982,” said Jaroo, who lives in Baghdad. “He used to tell me about the university in the old times. For him, it was a little Harvard. We are originally from Mosul two generations ago, and this campaign made us interested to help.”
Anas has been using social media to appeal for contributions, but some donations have been unexpected. Driving in his car one day, Anas said, he was stopped by a policeman who searched his trunk and discovered a box of donated books. The policeman went away and came back with three law books, which he added to Anas’s pile. It was a sign of how ordinary Iraqis have been willing to help, he said.
On May 25, an arts festival was held at the University of Mosul campus to promote the campaign. “The purpose of the festival was to let the world see the damaged library, to let people donate books to the library and to let those who promised to refill the library bring the books they have collected,” said Tahany Saleh, a master’s degree student at the University of Mosul who helped run the festival.
For Saleh, the book drive is personal. “I am still shocked,” she said. “It is a catastrophe. I entered the damaged building and visited all the floors. I saw the books burned by the Islamic State. There was nothing left of them but ashes scattered everywhere. The roofs fell in because of the fire, and the chairs had melted. Many places where I used to spend hours are just ashes now.”
She remained in Mosul but refused to study under the Islamic State. She resumed her coursework at the university’s campus in exile and is now preparing to write her thesis.
“I am in urgent need of books to complete my project,” said Saleh. “We need the library back again.”