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May 13, 2003

Excellent good news
Posted by Teresa at 11:57 PM *

Victoria Caplan, a librarian in Hong Kong, has pointed me to an article in the Boston Globe about the unofficial salvage operation that saved much of the holdings of Iraq’s National Library.

I am very happy. I want to quote the whole article. I must not. Go read it.

I believe it was all the way back in the 80s that I decided that if NYC were ever overrun with mobs of looters, the place I’d want to be is the front steps of Low Library at Columbia University, prepared if necessary to lay down my life for the holdings.

It’s not the books and other materials, the merely physical instantiations of the Word; it’s the silencing of the innumerable voices and memories the collection represents. I’ve worked as a researcher in the stacks at Low. I have some sense of how much more is in there than is dreamt of in all the card catalogues and descriptive bibliographies (not to mention the ninth-floor ghost that lurks right around where Chambers’ Cyclopaedia is shelved; but I digress).

And now the news comes that some portion of the Baghdad holdings were spared! It’s a wonderful thing. I am perfectly certain that future generations will feel the same.

Comments on Excellent good news:
#1 ::: Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 06:52 AM:


Of course, we're immediately going to hear from those that were dismissing the damage as unimportant or not the responsibility of the invading forces, that this proves all the outrage over the looting was "wrong". Let's take this moment to note that the looting and burning happened, and that what survives, survives not because Rumsfeld and Bush cared in the slightest about what happened to anything but the oil in Iraq, but because the librarians and the imams--career civil servants and clergy--cared, took responsibility, and took risks.

#2 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 10:01 AM:

This is wonderful news! I hope the resources we were gathering to help assess the loss can be put to use to help them rebuild (I just hate to think of reshelving all these random piles of books, although of course it's far better than the alternative -- not having anything to reshelve!).

#3 ::: Ray Ciscon ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 10:05 AM:

This is indeed good news!

Once the dust settled, it has been discovered that the looters were not the culprits who stole Iraq's historical treasures. The stolen items were part of an 'inside job' carried out by employees of the museums and libraries themselves. Now that it looks like the vast majority of the items have been recovered, we can only hope that any damage done was minimal.

Related to this topic, it looks like the new head guy in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer has issued orders authorizing coalition forces to shoot looters on sight.

This guy could be a future mayor of Chicago!

On another topic, I also heard that they may have struck oil under the unmarked grave filled with thousands of bodies.

#4 ::: Emmet ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 10:37 AM:

Oh, thank whatever deities may be taking an interest in such things. I don't have words for the relief.

I'd been trying to console myself with the thought that Trinity College and the Book of Kells would be both defended by a wall of bodies and in practise pretty well fortified against such looting - campus security gets fairly well tested at the Trinity Ball each year, in 1992 someone rammed the front gate with a car to no discernible effect [ on the gate ]. Slender comfort, but still some.

#5 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 11:49 AM:

Now I want to hear from all the people who said it was no big deal that the library was destroyed.

No, wait. I don't want to hear from them at all, ever again.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 11:57 AM:

Ray, that only holds true for the National Library. The plundering of the museums is still a disaster.

#7 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 12:12 PM:

The glass is half full and half empty. I can't express how happy I am that so much was saved, and I can't express how grief-striken I am over what has been lost. And oh! who will pay to catalog them? No matter how much has been saved, I don't expect that people working under the gun to save what they could saved the catalogues. I wonder, too, what kind of archives they need. Old documents are delicate, especially newspapers.

I guess, for me, the glass is three-quarters empty, only a quarter full. I'm grateful for that quarter, though, infinitely grateful.

#8 ::: jam ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 01:28 PM:

Stand in front of Butler, not Low. That's where the books are. There are only administrators in Low. I don't want you to sacrifice yourself for them.

#9 ::: Deborah Green ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 01:35 PM:

Low Library now houses most of Columbia's adminstration. Butler Library across the lawn houses most of the books. I think I'd end up in front of Kent Library myself since it has most of the art books.


#10 ::: sennoma ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 01:53 PM:

Most excellent news indeed! This struck an odd note though: "The books cannot be authenticated until US and Iraqi officials inspect them". The assistance of US scholars and librarians -- like the librarian of Congress mentioned in the article -- will surely be appreciated (and IMO is owed), but "US officials"? I would have thought that the authentication process was mainly up to Iraqi experts.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 04:28 PM:

Butler. I meant Butler. It's been years.

Has the shelf holding the Times Literary Supplement bound volumes collapsed yet? I always felt like I was taking my life into my hands when I took down one of those books. The shelf was higher than my head, and sagged badly in spite of being made of steel. When I'd take down a book, the rest of the volumes and their shelf would bounce gently up and down as the weight redistributed itself.

The children's literature section was very weird. Its floor was at a different level from any of the other floors, and its ceiling was at most seven feet high, maybe less. And dark, my god, it was dark. Most of Butler's dimly lit, but the combination of its low ceiling, high shelves, and seldom-replaced lightbulbs meant that areas of the children's literature section could literally be dark. You learned to steal a working bulb from one of the overhead fixtures and carry it around with you, screwing it into the fixture nearest where you needed to do your research.

Not a week has passed since I lost my access to Butler that I haven't wished I had it back.

#12 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2003, 08:45 PM:

Well, if you once had access to Butler (you were once a CU student), you can get it back.

Yup. Alumni Reading Cards. Wonderful things.

#13 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2003, 08:46 AM:

Alumni status? No such luck. I had access because my employer paid for it. This was back when I was a literary criticism reference series editor. The researchers who'd been provided for our project turned out to be worse than useless. All of us who were editing the series found it was more productive to spend half our time doing the research ourselves, and the other half editing the material we found. Management didn't give us any extra staff for this, or extend our deadlines; but they did buy us access to Butler Library at Columbia and Bobst Library at NYU.

Butler's the better library, but at Bobst the books were far less likely to have been checked out.

#14 ::: Jeremy Osner ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2003, 11:08 AM:

BSD, is that alumni status applicable to those who attended Columbia briefly but dropped out? If so, I'd like to get one of those cards -- could you let me know how to go about is?

#15 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2003, 02:20 PM:

_Thank_ _God_.

I was crying when I read that article. God bless the people who realized what had to be done, and did it.

#16 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2003, 06:59 PM:

Googling for "plush microbes" (note that I am not in the habit of Free-Associational Googling, so this one was weird by my standards) brought up the following:

Dunno if these are the initial ones referenced -- in the crummy photo, they look more like vat-dyed hamsters with advanced-stage Walterkeanemia than what I think of as photomicrographed virii.

Hmm. An acrylic-crystal T4 would be neat, as would a plush one (with a little pocket in the body containing a nucleic-acid bead string). It probably ought to have sharp chrome legs, but it wouldn't be safe to play with then.

#17 ::: Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: May 15, 2003, 09:53 PM:

Allah be praised. I'm not even Muslim, but I'm loving and respecting these clerics for the incredibly wise and brave thing they did for all of us.

Losing 10% of the collection is still an inexcusable tragedy, but so much less so than losing 100%

I'm not even worried about the Rumsfeldies going "See?" because it will sound as false and hollow as did their first words on the subject, and the embarrassing fact is that the books were saved by something other than the "Army of Liberation" or whatever they're calling it this week.

That five hundred year old book of folklore no one there can read. I'm wondering what's in it....

#18 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2003, 02:42 AM:

There were other libraries suffering unknown amounts of depradation due to Those in Washington. And there's a Belgian who on behalf of ten Iraqis is suing Franks for war crimes regarding looting of hospitals and such.

It's wonderful news that what was preserved has been preserved and that when the US soldiers couldn't be bothered [and it turns out that according to course material taught at the US Military Academy, there IS an obligation incumbent on US troops to protect hospitals, libraries, etc. against looting by occupying armies....] the Iraqis organized themselves to remove as many items as possible to safekeeping, but that doesn't change that the US stood by and failed to -protect-, and that -other- facilities were looted with the US and British evincing no interest in deterring it -- they sort of had that attitude "boys will be boys" that infuriated me when I was a grade schooler being told to shut up that discrimination was the correct way of the world and being victimized was a so what....

has daily updates (bottom of the webpage) discussing "TAKING STOCK IN BAGHDAD" regarding the situation of museum [former] holdings and such. had the status of libraries in Iraq as of Apr 29

"Central Library of the University of Baghdad (on 2 sites): about 600K printed books, serials, maps, etc. - both sites burnt"

"Library of Bayt al-Hikma: centre for research in the social sciences, law, economics and strategic studies very active in the 1980s 96 situated in the same area as the National Library 96 believed to be completely destroyed"

"Central Library of the University of Mosul: about 900K printed books, serials, etc. 96 looted and burnt

"Library of the Mosul Museum: since the Museum was bombed and looted, its library presumably also damaged"

#19 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2003, 01:15 AM:

Speaking of Columbia's libraries; the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library is more-or-less the US national architectural library--the index that their librarians publish is the standard architectural index for English-speakers. Architecture libraries are a lot like wizard's libraries are said to be--they have lots of obscure books of which there are not very many copies, and drawings and models of which there was only ever the one copy. (At least the books don't try to escape on their own. I think.) What else is special in the Columbia libraries, I wonder?

#20 ::: Sarah Prince ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2003, 06:16 PM:

Surprised I hadn't read this yet (not that i cover all the ground I mean to). A great relief.

#21 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2003, 10:10 AM:

Yeah I'd die for the British Library (not my local branch that's full of Barbara Carland's)

#22 ::: J Greely ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2003, 01:53 PM:

In other good news, missing museum treasures seem to be turning up all over the place. I particularly like this quote: "Staff initially refused to reveal the location of the vault until U.S. troops had left Iraq, but later relented."


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