The Great Library of Alexandria burning in antiquity, as depicted in John Westrop Watkins’ Popular History of Egypt (1886).
There’s not a lot that you can do for a library that’s been deliberately set on fire. There is, however, quite a lot that you can do when the fire’s stopped burning, most of which involves getting new books.
After British soldiers burnt the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, the organization rebuilt – and bought former President Thomas Jefferson’s personal book collection to jumpstart its new collection. It’s not quite as simple for the University of Mosul library, which fell under the control of Da’esh (commonly called ISIS or Islamic State) when the group conquered Mosul in June 2014. Life under their rule quickly turned dark, as chronicled by historian and blogger Omar Mohammed in his blog Mosul Eye. (At the time, Mohammed was posting anonymously for reasons of personal safety; he eventually had to flee the country.)
Da’esh forces followed up their conquest by publicly burning many of the library’s books and manuscripts, calling the humanities and fine arts un-Islamic, blasphemous, and more. Then the library was hit by airstrikes in March 2016, and when Da’esh forces finally evacuated in January 2017, they set the Central Library building on fire. More than one million books, manuscripts, and historic documents were lost in the conflagrations.
Before the Da’esh conquest, the University of Mosul was one of Iraq’s great institutions of higher education, with an enrollment comparable to St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota–Duluth combined (or the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, if you drift that way). Under their rule, all but a few medical and dental programs were shuttered. Still, the staff and faculty were resilient; some librarians smuggled thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts and rare books away, while other faculty and staff who escaped the city opened a satellite campus safe behind lines. After a pan-Iraqi coalition ousted Da’esh, the rebuilding began – starting with a project to recover and restore those books that had improbably survived the multiplicity of fires.
Fast forward to today, and the University of Mosul is springing back. It’s also a year into an international campaign to rebuild the library and its collection, soliciting both monetary and literary donations. The Minneapolis-based Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project and the Loft Literary Center have joined forces to help, with IARP working with Omar Mohammed to coordinate a Books for Mosul campaign.
A free kickoff event to support the library rebuild, co-sponsored by The Loft, will be held at 7 pm on Friday, March 30 at The Loft Literary Center at 1011 Washington Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Featured speakers will be Lindsey Smith from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) speaking about her recent medical trip to Mosul, and Azar Maluki, M.D., born in Iraq and former professor at the University of Kufa, who is on the Books for Mosul Committee. Refreshments will be provided by Mon Petit Cheri.
- Humanities (history, art, music, literature, classics, etc.)
- Medical school texts and references
- References (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.)