The Unbearable Ironies of Libraries in Wartime

Yesterday we learned from Yahoo News! that ISIS has used improvised explosive devices to destroy several historic landmarks in the Iraqi city of Mosul, including the Mosul University Theater, the Church of Mary the Virgin, and the Mosul Public Library. In the case of the library, which is now offline, ISIS destroyed more than 8,000 items from a collection that includes “manuscripts from the eighteenth century, Syriac books printed in Iraq’s first printing house in the nineteenth century, books from the Ottoman era, Iraqi newspapers from the early twentieth century and some old antiques like an astrolabe and sand glass used by ancient Arabs.”

The decimation of the Mosul Public Library is part of the Islamic State’s ongoing attack against Mosul’s libraries and cultural history. In the last two months, ISIS militants have raided and destroyed collections from the Mosul Museum Library, the University of Mosul library, and an additional Sunni library. According to Riyadh Mohammed of The Fiscal Times, more than 100,000 books have already been destroyed.

But why take a torch to buildings and collections from the birthplace of writing, or, in the case of Mosul’s institutions, the very foundation of modern Iraq? Here, from the AP in Mosul last month:

“These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So they will be burned,” a bearded militant in traditional Afghani two-piece clothing told residents, according to one man living nearby who spoke to The Associated Press. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation, said the Islamic State group official made his impromptu address as others stuffed books into empty flour bags.

With the destruction of these collections, ISIS is clearly staging a basic zealotry. What better way to stun a city than to erase its entire cultural history in the flash of a bomb? But the Islamic State is also violently enforcing an edict of cultural and ideological purity where no book that promotes infidelity to its narrow vision shall remain. This brings us to the first irony: if ISIS must destroy all writings at odds with its beliefs, then it must destroy every document recorded over 8,000 years.

There is another irony at work here, one that can, unfortunately, be expressed simply and illustrated by comparison. The ugly truth is that the Islamic State’s mania for burning books on the basis of ideological purity suggests that they believe in the power of books. If the destruction of these libraries and their collections is more than a symbolic gesture, if it is, as the militant stated above, a move against “infidelity” and heresy, than this implies that the reading of such books and documents and records — not to mention their very existence in the world — could empower opponents of the Islamic State.

This second irony is accentuated and displaced by a third. In some respects, it would seem, the militants of the Islamic State have a higher regard for the power of books than some individuals in the West. Last Thursday, the Guardian reported that the Manchester Central Library secretly disposed of more than 240,000 items in its collection during the course of a quarter of a billion dollar “renovation” scheme. The pulping of these items — which included foreign language books, reference books, and books that now have digital counterparts — was defended by Rosa Battle, the library’s executive member for culture and leisure, on the basis that they were “no longer relevant to, or supportive of, the library’s collections or its stock policy.”

Let’s point something out here. No one should reduce the value of an archive of books to a quantity or price, but it’s worth noting that ISIS has destroyed 100,000 items, and Manchester Central Library has destroyed 240,000.

What’s worse, the only reason we know about the library’s destruction of its own collection: a freedom of information request submitted by the Friends of Manchester Central Library. And this group has, over the last several months, loudly protested the scheme, adding, in a statement after the discovery:

What has been lost are the irreplaceable collections of reference and lending non-fiction books, covering every conceivable subject, giving that extraordinary breadth and depth of subject coverage that only long established libraries can provide.

And:

Library staff do not own the books in their care. Library staff are custodians and public servants; for them to have quietly and systematically disposed of 240,000 publicly owned library books with no public notification or consultation whatsoever, is, we think, morally reprehensible.

Librarians, Emerson once said, hold the keys to the kingdom; it’s unbearable that we cannot always trust them to protect it. Unlike the ISIS militants who destroyed the libraries of Mosul, the librarians, administrators, and business people who decimated the Manchester Central Library were not motivated to destroy the collection because of its formative or even heretical power. They were motivated only by the cumulative gleam of bleeding edge technology, contemporary architecture, and, of course, cash money.

I’ll end with the most unbearable irony of all. The destruction of these collections betrays an incontrovertible fact: we cannot resolve issues in Iraq or Syria without the very books destroyed in Mosul and Manchester. This is because we cannot even properly identify the actors of the region without such books. As Patrick Cockburn — author of The Rise of Islamic State and the New Sunni Revolution and the forthcoming The Jihadis Return — wrote recently in The Independent, policy experts would not believe journalists, even established journalists, who claimed that ISIS was on the rise. After writing several articles on the subject, Cockburn attended a conference of such experts, who roundly ignored him:

Shortly afterwards I attended a conference of Middle East experts in Amman, Jordan, about the war in Syria, where I made the point that Isis was already powerful enough to carry out operations in a great swathe of territory. The only person who seemed to agree with me fully was Gareth Stansfield, Professor of Middle East Politics and Director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, who knew Iraq well. I got the sense that the others at the meeting considered our views exaggerated, even eccentric.

Cockburn concluded that the deafness of policy experts was not due to his stature or the quality of his reporting, both of which are substantial, but to the very form itself. The geopolitical situation in Iraq is far too complex to handle in a single article, or even a series of them. We need books for a problem of this magnitude and complexity:

This simply cannot explain something as complex as the reasons behind the rise of Islamic State. The only way this can be done is by means of well-informed and up-to-date books. Reading them is not just the best way of understanding what is happening; it is the only way of doing so. Schools, universities and even publishers don’t make this point strongly enough.

Maybe it’s time to ask whether we should ever consider cutting back on library collections, or whether, on the contrary, we might need new books, substantial books, published quickly, with an eye toward what is happening in the world, housed in new libraries everywhere. If we want, or even desperately need, a new Enlightenment, as Pankaj Mishra recently suggested, such an event will begin or end with our libraries.