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Librarianship in times of conflict

Why do libraries become targets during conflict? And why do so many put themselves in harm’s way to protect them? In this blog, our chair Dr. Alice Prochaska reflects on these questions, and more.  

In times of conflict, libraries and archives become all too often the targets of partisan attack by those who seek to bring human inheritance to ruin, or simply to abuse and misuse it. There are few if any parts of the world where libraries have not been vulnerable at some time in their history; and too many places in the modern world where they are under threat right now. 

Reading changes lives, and libraries make that possible, for children and students in schools, universities and communities all over the world, from the poorest to the most privileged. The travails that so many nations and cultural groups have endured to rescue and preserve the libraries of the world, against all threats, make up a heroic and often unrecorded history. 

Attacks on libraries in years past 

Between 1939 and 1945, the bombing, looting, systematic removal and sheer destruction of museums, libraries and archives across many parts of the world reached levels surpassing the worst nightmares of those who cared about books, reading and records, wherever they were. In Europe the effect of theft, confiscations and forced sales of the property of Jewish families by the Nazi regime haunts us still. It is estimated that over 100 million books were destroyed. 

In 1992, Serbian forces deliberately targeted the libraries and archives of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and reduced to ashes the National and University Library’s irreplaceable collection of unique manuscripts, archives and works of art as well as the national collection of books. The librarians and curators fought heroically alongside the firefighters, and the director of the national museum, Dr Rizo Sjaric, was killed by a grenade blast. They put their own lives at risk in a vain attempt to rescue this great national and international heritage from the flames. 

In more recent years, the heroic defence of the ancient Islamic manuscript collections of Timbuktu against the destructive attempts of ideologically motivated terrorists in Mali present another famous but fragile case of survival. Timbuktu was an ancient seat of learning, and the manuscripts held there embody important information about ancient and long-lasting Islamic customs and knowledge in Africa. 

In the 1990s a library was erected in Timbuktu with UNESCO funding and support from western scholars to hold the collection in one place and create a new institute. In 2013 Islamic jihadists fighting for control of Mali set fire to the library, perhaps because they saw it as a manifestation of western patronage. The institute’s librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and a small group of supporters spirited the manuscripts out of Timbuktu to relative safety in the Malian capital Bamako, several hundred miles away. There they remain to this day, a monument not only to the learning of the scholars who created them centuries ago but also to the bravery and dedication of the librarians who have rescued them. 

Similar stories proliferate as time goes on. During the turmoil that followed the Iraq war, the great library in Mosul was torched by fighters of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in 2015. Tens of thousands of books were burned along with the library building, as were irreplaceable texts dating back to the Ottoman era. UNESCO called it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history”.

But today, The University of Mosul library is open and – while the historical texts cannot be replaced – an international effort has restocked its shelves. Included in that effort is our work to supply tens of thousands of brand-new higher education books to replace those destroyed in the fire.  

The right to read during war  

Active threats to libraries, archives, the right to read and collective identity continue around the world. In the Ukraine, more than 570 libraries have been destroyed by Russian bombardments, with evidence suggesting the deliberate targeting of public and university libraries. In response, PEN Ukraine has launched a campaign to restock Ukrainian libraries and I am immensely proud to that we are joining that campaign with a donation of 25,000 brand-new English language books.  

Their value is practical and symbolic, with access to books – particularly English language books – providing a sense of international solidarity and a much-needed link to the outside world. 

Stories of defiance and defence of books and archives during war sometimes hit the headlines, but more often than not, the rescue work of local librarians, teachers and community leaders will go unsung, particularly in the world’s unreported conflicts.  

Take, for example, the ongoing conflict in Cameroon. In the Anglophone parts of Cameroon, English-speaking separatists are fighting to create their own state separate from the Francophone majority. For five years this conflict has raged. In total, more than 700,000 people have fled their homes and thousands have died. A boycott on schools is being violently enforced, with reports of teachers being murdered and students assaulted on their way to school, and both libraries and schools have been closed because of safety concerns, or deliberately destroyed. 

Any attempts to support education carry risk, yet librarians, religious and community leaders and NGOs are quietly working to restore access to books. These heroic teachers, volunteers and NGO staff transport books – among them the English language books we donate – to families and refugee communities wherever they are sheltering, using bicycles, back packs or any mode of transport that comes to hand.  

Where it is possible to deliver the books in the first place, reading can be a transformative experience as well as being sometimes the only reliable source of information and education. Ten-year-old Fortune recounts: “When we were running away from the war, we spent months in the forest. I could not go to school. We lived in fear. When they brought the book box library, I was so happy because I could read again. The books have given us hope”. 

Why libraries matter in conflict  

Why do libraries matter so much, then, that they call forth heroism, ingenuity and sacrifice in their defence in so many ways? Why do they matter so much that the enemies of their parent nations and communities are determined to destroy them?  

At the level of nations and distinct ethnic groups, they are a crucial part of identity. At the level of the small community and the individual, the great truth is that reading brings strength. It supports the interior life of each reader and provides solace and escape. Reading is the route to information and knowledge, which are two related but separate things.  

Each individual reader, from the school child who is just learning to read, to the experienced scholar, constructs their own knowledge from the information they find in books; and along with this knowledge come values, curiosity, judgment and wisdom. Those are the fundamental building blocks of power.  

The victims of Nazism and its imitators knew that so long as libraries survived, their own national and ethnic culture and history could not be obliterated. The heirs to the traditional writings of Timbuktu’s historic scholars know that this priceless legacy contains the evidence of a learned culture and values that they can make better known and respected in the world.

The children of Cameroon, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and all too many other countries are learning against the odds, the priceless gifts that reading can give them. Libraries matter in a way that those of us who are fortunate enough to take them for granted need to understand.  

People everywhere who value democracy wish to hear the voices of their fellow citizens, and to know the truths of their own society. They know that libraries matter to them. In times of conflict, the determination of librarians, archivists and curators to preserve the power of reading is an irreplaceable force for good. 

This blog is a summary of Dr. Prochaska’s full peer reviewed submission to UKSG’s Insights Journal. We thank the journal for its publication.

Dr. Alice Prochaska is Chair of The Board of Trustees at Book Aid International. She is a historian, curator and archivist and was formerly head of Yale University Library and then Somerville College, University of Oxford.

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