An international collection drive to restock the shelves of an Iraqi university library destroyed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) demonstrates worldwide solidarity for education and the written word, according to experts at St. Joseph’s College.
“We – meaning anyone who cares about and values knowledge and intellectual exchange – want them to get back on their feet as soon as possible,” said Elizabeth Pollicino Murphy, Ed.D., executive director of SJC’s libraries. “We’re showing them that people from other parts of the world care about them. We want their college, when it rises up from the ashes, to have a core collection.”
ISIS destroyed the central library at the University of Mosul in 2015, one year after taking control of the city. Militants annihilated hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and books, including periodicals and maps that date back to the ninth century.
When Iraqi forces regained control of most of the city this year, including the area surrounding the university, a group of locals returned to the library in an attempt to salvage what was left.
The man who initiated the restoration of the library, who refers to himself as Mosul Eye, graduated from the university and was employed there when ISIS seized it.
“Whenever I was in the university, I would spend most of my time at the library,” Mosul Eye told Buzzfeed News. “When I didn’t like my professors’ lectures, I often went to the library to do research and study books on my own.”
Murphy said a library can be a place of refuge for a devastated community.
“The library can be a haven when everything around it is bad,” she said. “But when something happens to the library, the idea is to be as resilient as possible.”
SJC’s Department of History Chair James Blakeley, Ph.D., said that the destruction of books is common. “Even ‘Harry Potter’ books were burned in the early 2000s because it had ideas there were offensive to some religious groups,” he said.
Murphy explained that destroying books symbolizes the destruction of people’s ideas, even if what is really being ruined is just the tangible evidence of ideas. “They’ve tried to dismantle a culture because they don’t agree with what it stands for,” she said.
Libraries are about more than just preserving people’s ideas, Murphy explained.
“It’s a preservation of a civilization,” Murphy said. “(At the library) there should be all different ideas, competing ideas. You should be able to walk in and find something that you agree with and something that you disagree with.”
Blakeley and Murphy stressed the importance of donating to the library in Mosul.
“Can we replace manuscripts and maps from the Ottoman Empire? No. But what we can do is give the people in those war-torn areas books to read,” Murphy said.