How far would you go to save a library full of books?
”It was like a battle when the books got burned. I imagined that those books, those history and culture and philosophy books, were crying, ‘Why, why, why?’ ”
-Alia Muhammed Baker
One of the many tragedies of war is the destruction of irreplaceable cultural and historical items. Books and libraries are a repository of history, culture and knowledge. If a library is destroyed, history is lost. It has happened many times throughout the world.
As a child Alia Baker had read the story of the Mongol invasion and the burning of the Baghdad library in 1258 CE. This horror made a lasting impression on her. Alia was the chief librarian of the Al Basra Central Library in Basra, Iraq when the war came in 2003. She feared for the safety of the books and history contained within the walls of the library and begged for help from government officials. Her pleas were ignored. When she came to work one day and found the library full of military and goverment workers and the roof lined with snipers she knew she had to act regardless.
Alia brought books out of the library, filling her car each day. She drove the books to her house where she stacked them in every available space. This continued for several days until the British troops arrived in Basra. Fighting erupted in the streets followed by riots and looting. Things had become desparate for Alia and her mission to save the books. She called a friend, the owner of the restaurant next door to the library. Together, with other friends and family, they worked through the day and night to move the books out of the library, over the wall, and into the restaurant.
The next day, the library burns. Despite their efforts, many books were not saved and Alia is devastated. She falls ill and doctors discover she has suffered a stroke.
In an interview with the author of The Librarian of Basra, Jeanette Winter says that the idea that one person could make a difference was what really struck her. “I’m amazed in my own life what one person can do, and I think it’s important for kids to know that,” she says. “They don’t always hear that at home.”
Two children’s books have been written about this library heroine – The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter and a graphic novel, Alia’s Mission, by Mark Alan Stamaty. Of the two, I preferred Alia’s Mission because it was a more in-depth version of the story.
In nine days, Alia and those who helped her were able to save 70% of the library’s collection. The library was rebuilt a year later and she was reinstated as chief librarian.
Ongoing Efforts to Rebuild and Replace the Library
Saad Eskander is the current director of the Iraq National Library and Archive. He has been working since 2003 to rebuild the library, return missing books to its collection, and digitally archive important books and papers to prevent any future loss. His vision is one of democratic cultural education for all Iraqi citizens.
“Only through complete transparency can there be true democracy in Iraq. This has to be the way forward for my country.”
Eskander believes that free access to all of the country’s history is crucial to Iraq’s ability to move forward. Today, 15 years after the library was burned in the Battle of Baghdad, restoration work is ongoing.
Read about other library heroes
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NY Times article from 2003
Book study for Librarian of Basra and Alia’s Mission
Interview with author of Librarian of Basra
Stamaty, Mark Alan. Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq: Inspired by a True Story. Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Winter, J. (2005). The librarian of Basra. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, Inc.