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The House of Books: Erbil, Iraq

Flying into Erbil at night

“What you destroy, we will rebuild, only better” – Slogan of Kurdish Peshmerga.

The garden I am standing in is so beautiful that I find it difficult to imagine that it was a former detention centre  operated by Saddam Hussain’s Ba’ath party, a place  of imprisonment and torture.  It is now a garden full of  flowers  and trees and in its centre rises the impressive Zaytun Library of Erbil.  This is no accident, the Kurdish Peshmerga vowed that all these sites would be rebuilt this way once Saddam’s regime ended and the people would reclaim such poisoned land for purposes such as libraries and gardens. Erbil or or Hawler as it is called by locals like much of Iraq has seen a lot of history pass its way, Alexander the Great sorted out the Persian King Darius near here and the citadel of Erbil is the oldest inhabited city in the world and a soon to be UNESCO heritage site.

Erbil citadel


Flag of Kurdistan

But let’s take a step back. What is a London based Corkonian doing in the middle of former detention centre/ garden in Iraqi Kurdistan? This  region in the north is the ancestral homelands of the Kurds – the oft persecuted minority in Iraq.  The Kurds constitute the largest minority without a homeland. I was at the library as part of the third House of Books workshop funded by the EU and UNESCO and run by a Humanitarian NGO called Un Ponte Per…. You can read more about their involvement here. It is the last in a series of workshops which has been looking at digitisation of texts and their preservation and its main partner is the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA). Many institutes from Iraq joined us including the National Museum of Iraq, Centre Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux and other projects. From the Middle East the  National Library of Jordan and the  American University of Beirut also took part. My story with the INLA goes back to 2004 when I managed after some effort to persuade Dr Saad Eskander to write his  diary about his day to day life reconstructing the destroyed library in Baghdad.

Iraq National Library and Archives

The INLA was destroyed during and post war in 2003.  Of its 417,000 books, 2,618 periodicals dating from the late Ottoman era to modern times, and a collection of 4,412 rare books and manuscripts, an estimated 60 percent of its total archival materials, 25 percent of its books, newspapers, rare books, and most of its historical photographs and maps were destroyed in various ways. This was not just a loss for Iraq, it was a catastrophe for the world on many levels.

In 2011, Dr Eskander has built up a library few could ever have imagined possible. The INLA now leads the way in much best practise in librarianship for both traditional and digital material in Iraq.  There are also many digitisation projects being hatched in Iraq and around the Middle East, big and small and the drive to join up previously physically separated collections of journals, manuscripts, photographs is strong. The potential of the digital has long been recognised as a powerful means of disseminating information in the Middle East. The workshop  is trying to make projects understand that digitisation has a catch, and that is preservation or how to ensure that access is maintained over time. This idea was well introduced in Jordan during sessions such as ”Digitisation is not preservation’ and other catchy titles, and the event this time saw progression and developments since Jordan. In fact it seemed that projects had reassessed their approach to digitisation. Some would admit that where previously they were just scanning, (blogs passim) they revisited their projects in light of what they had learned in Jordan. Some  added technical metadata which they had not done at point of digitisation, others looked at having master copies as well as access copies of their digitised content and kept in different locations.  Policies were reconsidered. Storage solutions were considered. All steps in the right direction. The value of having 2 workshops in a year with a lot of the same people in both proved useful  as there seemed to be a lot of consolidation and desire to demonstrate improvements between one meeting and the next.

Workshop overview

The workshop was kicked off by UPP, and some short contributions by the EU’s representative in Kurdistan, Hala Al Sharifa , followed by the UNESCO programme officer for Kurdistan, Sami Al Khoji who is clearly dedicated to his role and the revitalisation and distribution by digital means of information about Iraq’s cultural assets. Kanan Mufti who is  director general for antiquities in the western Kurdish region in Erbil and who resided in the ancient citadel reflected on the importance of documentary heritage for Kurdistan and declared the protection of documents as a priority for them.  Presentations the INLA showed us they have been digitising and accessioning digital content since 2008 and we heard about their  plan to develop an Iraq digital library making its materials available to all Iraqis online.  The material will cover all aspects of Iraqi life and society and all forms of document. The INLA sees as vital its contribution to intellectual and scientific research in Iraq and also endeavours to support programmes which will end illiteracy in Iraq. The INLA has embarked on training programmes in many aspects of digital library management. They have even managed to send 2 people to attend the Digital Preservation Training Programme, thanks to the British Council and BISI.

The National Library of Jordan spoke about the need for standardisation in the region in relation to cataloguing and indexing. The  American University of Beirut ‘s presentation lead on nicely as Basma Chebani reflected  on Arabic ontologies and the need for authority files in the Arabic speaking world. My 2nd session on metadata fitted in well here and we did a nice hands on exercise, working with the group of 30 through Arabic and Kurdish, it seemed to hit the mark and the right level. The translator also did a great job helping me, he is now a metadata expert!

Father Najeeb of the Dominican Order in Iraq who spoke movingly about their ancient texts and manuscripts and their ongoing digitisation. A small project with great ambitions from a community constantly under threat. I plan to write more about this in another blog.

Early Christian manuscript, Centre Numerique des Manuscrits Orientaux, Mosul, Iraq.


Many copyright issues arose, in particular that of forgeries in the traditional manuscript environment. It seems that a lot of illegal copying takes place and it is difficult to contain. Issues such as translation were interesting. During my session on digitisation and preservation the Iraqi born but Aberystwyth-reared translator ran out of his booth proclaiming, ‘What is a plug in?!’ To which everyone loudly  had an opinion in return.

Translator in action

The translator explains metadata












I led the concluding session, working with the group about recommendations for next steps arising from the workshop. This proved interesting, considering I was again working with a translator with a group who spoke Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac, not to mention an Arabic English keyboard! Getting individuals to think by themselves and for themselves about what they would accomplish on their return to work is good in a big group. They then worked as teams of 4 to consider what the next steps would be in Iraq for libraries and archives.  The key issues were networking, the establishment of a national network or syndicate of librarians and archivists and information specialists involved in libraries and archives is deemed of great importance. The group also want to consolidate the information from the workshops and ensure that people are not reinventing the wheel in terms of developing best practise. The establishment of education and training programmes in all aspects of librarianship and archives is also vital.

Metadata matters but other things do too.

What was also key and hidden beneath the discussion of texts and metadata and the like was that this was a   moment or space away from the day to day. These people work in circumstances which we cannot begin to comprehend. Just to come to the workshop involved endless checkpoints and danger. Life is unsafe and violent. Civil society as we know it here in the UK is almost non existent in most of Iraq. Electricity cuts are regular, resulting in me being stuck in a lift fo 5 minutes. This is not the same for Erbil on the whole but most colleagues came from Baghdad, Mosul and other regions which are the news for tragic reasons.

The value of this little group of archivists and librarians from different ethnic and religious groups is more than just about metadata and file formats (as important as they are) but about bringing disparate groups of people together with a view to the flowering of a new nation where religious and ethnic difference no longer matter, where censorship doesn;t exist, where ideas flow freely once again. This is the vision of the INLA director Dr Saad Eskander.  It is not an easy vision in a divided society where sectarianism is rife. However it is not so unusual to consider the power of libraries as a social phenomenom and yet we seem to treat them purely as an informational phenomenon. The House of Books demonstrates that it works on at least 2 levels

Iraq as everyone knows has  a violent history of occupation and war, however during periods of serenity, the emergence of civilisations who have made numerous extraordinary contributions to the history of civilisation, these include  writing, and the concept of zero or  sifr to name but a few.  Original texts survive from the era of Babylonian mathematics. On day 1 of archives school baby archivists learn that the Babylonians wrote on tablets of unbaked clay, using cuneiform writing. The symbols were pressed into soft clay tablets with the slanted edge of a stylus and so had a wedge-shaped appearance (and hence the name cuneiform). Experts studying these learned that the Babylonians had developed the concept of sifr or zero.


Cunieform from Babylonian times: Top: 64 (1 sixty + 4 ones) bottom: 3604 (1 sixty2 + 0 sixty + 4 ones)



Sifr is also used in Arabic to denote a clean slate, a blank page. In Iraq hard work has begun of the rebuilding from scratch  of a rich cultural heritage of Iraq for the future.  I am glad that the preservation of digital heritage of Iraq is a part of this.  More later!

Well, is this a format?

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