Middle East Librarians Association
Committee on Iraqi Libraries

Bosnian Libraries: 
Their Fate in the War and Responses to it,

with Lessons for Iraq


Jeffrey B. Spurr
Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture
Fine Arts Library
Harvard University

Paper originally presented at the Special Advocacy Session, "Cultural Heritage in a Time of War", of the College Art Association (CAA) annual conference, Seattle, WA, 20 February, 2004

The immediate causes of devastation to Bosnian and Iraqi libraries were quite different while the consequences were largely the same and the ideal remedies similar.  This talk will describe the fate of Bosnian libraries, efforts to ameliorate their condition, successes and failures in that regard, and reflections upon the state of similar institutions in Iraq and current efforts to address their plight.


Although a large number of smaller private and institutional libraries were destroyed in the war against Bosnia, the latter frequently associated with mosques and monasteries, the worst destruction occurred in Sarajevo during the longest siege in modern history.


The burning of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo on August 25-26, 1992 was neither the first nor the last outrage against culture in that war.  Serb nationalist forces had shelled and destroyed the collections of Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute that May, and six faculty libraries of the University of Sarajevo were destroyed and another four severely damaged during the course of the siege.  Similarly, Sarajevo’s Municipal Public Library lost half of its 300,000 volumes and the use of its central and four branch libraries.


[SLIDES:  General view of the Vijecnica in its death throes (color) and a second of the devastated interior shortly after the burning and before it was cleaned out (b&w).]


The Serb forces fired incendiary phosphorus shells at the grand and elegant stained-glass skylight over the atrium of the Vijecnica, the splendid Moorish-revival building that had been founded under Austrian rule as the seat of government and transformed into the National Library after WWII.  The ensuing conflagration was unstoppable.  Although a significant number of rare manuscripts and books were salvaged by the staff under daunting conditions (and collections of tertiary value, stored off site, were spared), some ninety percent of the library’s contents were consumed, including as many as 1,500,000 volumes, numerous special collections, the greatest collection of Bosnian periodical literature since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, and the archives of the various ethnic and cultural societies that had been consolidated there at the time of the library’s establishment.   The Vijecnica itself survived as a shell, its fine marble revetments burnt to lime, its lovely rooms laid waste.


So what was to be done?  Nothing much while the siege raged and the library’s remnants and its remaining staff survived in several basement venues in the city.  It is impossible to overestimate the costs of the calamity that befell that National Library in the context of the war. The catalogue was destroyed, so records of what had been as well as for what survived were lost, the latter in need of rebuilding.  UNESCO estimated that 70% of the librarians present before the war were no longer in the country at its end, and a similar fate befell the staff of the National Library.


At war’s end in early 1996, more than three years since the wrecking of Sarajevo’s principal cultural institutions, there was no specific international agreement that this damage had to be made right by concerted action and no actors who took long-range responsibility for such an undertaking.  The major players seem to have felt that their task was done when the portions of the former Marshall Tito Barracks dedicated to be a temporary National Library, but containing only 35% of the space in the Vijecnica, were physically restored to a functional state.  Even this took years fully to accomplish, using funds from the World Bank, USAID, UNESCO and Soros.  A German donation of stacks provided a place to put surviving and donated books.  Despite a UNESCO assessment report published at the beginning of 1996 promoting comprehensive staff training and development, collection rebuilding, automation and connectivity among major libraries; in fact, only the most limited funds were provided toward these ends.  Indeed, the diminished Bosnian National Government, undermined by an administrative system only Rube Goldberg could love but imposed by the Dayton Accords, has progressively decreased funding for the National Library.  Similarly, the Oriental Institute had to make do with much diminished quarters, as I discovered when the Bosnia Library Project’s second major donation to them proved to be all that they could physically handle.


No internationally coordinated initiative was undertaken to assist in the rebuilding of destroyed and damaged library collections.  Among other unfortunate efforts, one misbegotten book drive had already resulted in tens of thousands of largely useless books fetching up in a warehouse in Maribor, Slovenia while the siege still raged.   In this vacuum, the Bosnia Library Project was conceived in early 1996 at Harvard by Andras Riedlmayer and myself and I became its coordinator.*  In brief, we solicited and received the support of Neil Rudenstine, then President of Harvard, and, through him, a commitment by the Harvard University Press for two copies of every title on its list.  This was quickly followed by like commitments from the University of Chicago, MIT, Princeton and John’s Hopkins Presses with lesser donations from 16 other American scholarly presses.  Replacing what had been lost to the fire was never going to be possible, but I was convinced that this caliber of donation would go a long way toward the rebuilding of a major collection.  The heads of Harvard’s vast library system agreed to permit our volunteers to select from all materials passing through the department of Gifts and Exchange on a nearly monthly basis until it was closed down in late 2003.  Some other institutional and many private donations regularly augmented these primary sources, the most valuable being complete scholarly collections and long runs of journals.   Two years of lobbying and some fund raising resulted in three full sets of the Library of America being donated to libraries in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar.


OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center, Inc., undertook a search of 36,000,000 library records and came up with 103,983 records of Bosniaca in American libraries, which list was sent to Sarajevo in the event that microforms needed to be created of any to replace losses.  OCLC also agreed to provide bibliographic records from the ISBN lists submitted by the scholarly presses to assist in the daunting cataloguing task awaiting the Bosnian librarians.


From the beginning, the Bosnia Library Project operated in partnership with the Sabre Foundation of Cambridge, which had many years experience in book donation projects and the knowledge of logistics in warehousing, transport and distribution of donated materials.  With its assistance, several academic libraries in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar have benefited from our donations.


This represents the successful aspect of this Project.  Although I had not set eyes on the UNESCO report at the time, in 1999 I enlisted colleagues in Sarajevo, Maribor and London in creating a comprehensive proposal designed to initiate a renascence in Bosnian academic libraries.  It would have provided funds for systematic professional development, for hardware and software necessary to create a Bosnia-wide system to enhance cataloguing, collection management and user access, for continued donations of publications at a high level, and for a preservation department for the National Library.  Of these, the latter, provided independently by the Spanish National Library, and a visual library for the Faculty of Architecture, support for which was solicited by me from IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), was all that was achieved.  I was unable to find an interested foundation or granting agency.  Both timing––too long after the events––and lack of contacts on my part doubtless played a role.  To this day, Bosnian libraries have inadequate hardware and are proceeding very slowly toward the kind of connectivity necessary to optimize their strained staffs and budgets.




The differences and similarities between the Bosnian and Iraqi cases are both marked.  Underdeveloped and destroyed and damaged collections in both places, although the underdevelopment is worse in Iraq, being due to twenty-four rather than four years of lost contact.  Institutions in both countries were in an etiolated state due to politics, under funding and lack of contact with the outside world, though, again, chronically worse in Iraq.  However, while the damage in Bosnia was principally focused on Sarajevo and the utterly devastated National and University Library, the orgy of looting unleashed in Iraq in the absence of any authority willing to stop it was all pervasive outside Kurd-held territories in the North. 


Between June and last November 2003 several reports** commenced the process of assessing the damage to and status of Iraqi cultural and educational institutions, including libraries and archives   (among them, Opening the Doors, by the Iraqi Observatory, which includes our colleague KEITH WATENPAUGH).   While varying in focus, scope, specificity and quality, these reports did provide a depressing picture of the dismal state of the libraries and of how much was yet to be learned. 


[Slides:  View of the front façade of the National Library with scorch marks rising above the windows and Saddam still greeting visitors at R; interior view of rooms containing scorched shelves of books, one being held out to view in foreground]


The good news was that, although the structure of the Iraqi National Library had been irremediably damaged, the provident actions of its staff and of a Shi’ite cleric had insured that the great bulk of the book and archival collections had been spared although facing threats to preservation; also that other important archival collections were safe.  Furthermore, it was promising that, given the expectations in international law concerning the responsibilities of occupying powers, the fundamental principle, “You broke it, you fix it” should apply, and the primary agent of action (or, rather, inaction in failing to impose its authority after toppling a totalitarian regime) was the richest, most powerful nation on earth.  In the Iraqi case, invasion, looting and devastation all took place in a matter of weeks.  The whole world was watching (unlike in the Bosnian case).  The drama of the Iraq Museum held center stage and compelled attention to the fate of cultural institutions, hence the numerous assessment visits.  Consequently, the possibility of well-funded, concerted action is reasonably high.


The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 had nearly brought to an end the acquisition of titles and periodical subscriptions from Europe and the US at Iraqi libraries due to a collapse in funding.  What little was accomplished in the ‘80s ceased altogether in the ‘90s with the embargo.  Thus even surviving Iraqi library collections are woefully out of date.  The effects of the looting ranged from little of the collection being stolen in Mosul to nearly the whole central library of the University of Basrah being incinerated and the entire collection of 175,000 books and manuscripts at the library of the University of Baghdad’s College of Arts being reduced to ashes.  Moreover, everything that could be taken was taken, down to electrical wiring.  We have received lists of lost equipment and furnishings for a few university libraries.  That for Al-Mustansiriyah University Library in Baghdad covers 21 classes of items, from 27 computers to 60 flourescent bulbs.


Coordination and control are the bywords that should govern all assistance to Iraqi academic libraries.  This is to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, to make sure that the Iraqi recipients receive publications of value to them, to maximize efficiency and breadth of distribution and mitigate the burdens on the recipients.  Infrastructure must be addressed before Iraqi institutions can effectively handle large donations of publications.  Due to the looting, these libraries are virtually an infrastructural tabula rasa.  I have emphasized to the representatives of the CPA responsible for education and culture that this is the moment to design interconnected automated systems to link the principal Iraqi academic libraries and foster cooperative cataloguing and other online functions.  Happily, they are showing signs that they will address this important question.


I had hoped that IFLA would act as a clearinghouse for aid proposals or, at the very least, establish a monitored webpage where initiatives could be posted and commented upon.  After considerable lobbying, this is beginning to happen.  The IraqCrisis website hosted by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago*** has posted many useful reports and other information, particularly concerning Iraqi archival collections.  However, soon it will also provide contact information for the principal administrators at all Iraqi academic institutions.  The idea here is to be able to link specific donors with specific institutions.  An effort is underway to see if the APO (Army Post Office) system can be employed to expedite carefully selected small donations.  As I envision it, a complete list of contents and a willing recipient would be required with each donation.  This could keep shipping costs down to US library rates.


For larger donations, similar coordination is critical, and appropriate warehousing and distribution mechanisms of the sort insisted upon by the Sabre Foundation are needed.  USAID is sponsoring some large-scale efforts to assist specified Iraqi universities or disciplines.  This seems to be presently operating on an almost first-come, first-served basis with consortia of obscure Bible Belt colleges funded to assist major Iraqi universities.  The one promising effort, so far, is SUNY Stony Brook’s initiative to develop library collections on archaeology and environmental health at targeted institutions.


The most widely publicized book donation to date provides an example of how not to proceed.  The British Council accepted a reported ten tons of donations from English universities.  The bulk of these were boxed and delivered en masse via Amman to Baghdad.  The latest informal news is that nine tons of books from this donation are languishing in a warehouse in Baghdad and that no one has yet figured out a way to distribute them.  This is what happens when donations are not thoroughly organized, lack intellectual control over contents and are sent without arrangements made in advance and agreements specifying recipients.  Who is to sort it all out?


OCLC has offered to provide the same service for Iraq that they provided us for gifts to Bosnian libraries:  submission of lists of ISBN numbers will result in bibliographic records for all titles in a specific donation.


Harvard’s libraries are working on two initiatives, both contingent on funding.  One, with Simmons School of Library and Information Science, will result in significant professional development for selected Iraqi librarians, initially via intensive courses given in Amman, later with year-long fellowships to Simmons linked to internships at Harvard’s libaries.  This should assist in bringing up to date skills and standards to Iraqi librarianship at a time when it is most needed.


It is impossible for any one institution or effort to address the needs of Iraqi libraries across all disciplines.  This work will take years.  We at Harvard decided to take a topical approach:  to solicit from academics in the appropriate disciplines a core bibliography of currently available titles, reference works and journals for topics we considered critical to contemporary Iraqi society.  These range from constitutional development and democratic institutions to wetlands ecology****  Although the hard sciences, engineering and medicine are of vital importance and might appear to deserve absolute priority while political science is understandably underdeveloped in an Iraq emerging from totalitarianism, we have chosen our topics trusting that they will be complemented by other initiatives.


Finally, internet access is also critical.  It is expensive and best accomplished in a coordinated fashion.  In a trial effort JSTOR***** has agreed to give the University of Basrah two years of access to its resources, comprising 390 academic journals online.  Ideally, it should be available to all Iraqi academic institutions, although Basrah is especially worthy since its libraries were particularly devastated.  Ultimately, funds would be required for more comprehensive access.




                                                                        Jeffrey B. Spurr

                                                                        Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture

                                                                        Fine Arts Library

                                                                        Harvard University

                                                                        February 20, 2004






*But initially inspired by the visit of Dr. Enes Kujundzic, Director of the National and University Library, to Boston in October, 1994, while the siege raged.  He was my guest during his stay and Andras Riedlmayer and I arranged his meetings and events at Harvard, MIT, Simmons School for Library and Information Science and the Boston Public Library.  Bosnia Library Project-related web pages:


Also, important websites related to libraries and archives in Bosnia:


Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project


Open Book (Sarajevo), previously CUPRIJA (The Bridge)




Nabil al-Tikriti, Iraq Manuscript Collections, Archives & Libraries Situation Report

8 June 2003


Keith Watenpaugh, et al, Opening the Doors:  Intellectual Life and Academic Conditions in Post-War Baghdad, A Report of the Iraqi Observatory, 15 July 2003


Jean-Marie Arnoult, Assessment of Iraqi Cultural Heritage: Libraries & Archives, June 27-July 6, 2003  (By UNESCO contract)


Library of Congress and the U.S. Department of State Mission to Baghdad.  Report on the National Library and the House of Manuscripts, October 27-November 3, 2003


E. Christian Filstrup, The USAID-Iraq HEAD––Stony Brook University Program in Archaeology and Environmental Health. Libraries Assessment: Baghdad Visit 17-22 December, 2003


***In part sponsored by the Middle East Librarians Association Committee on Iraqi Libraries and maintained by Charles Jones, one feature of Lost Treasures from Iraq website


****   Harvard’s topics:

1. Constitutional development and democratic institutions

2. Truth, memory, and reconciliation

3. Civil society and the voluntary organizations that serve it

4. Nationalism, ethnicity, multiculturalism, and the formation of social identity

5. Globalization, international commerce, and business

6. The economics and politics of petroleum

7. Desert and wetlands ecology.


*****JSTOR –– The Scholarly Journal Archive




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