After the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Dr Saad Eskander, the new Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) visited the British Library in 2004. By that time, the INLA had been looted and set alight twice, and we felt that we had to do all that we could to help our fellow professionals in Iraq.
The first challenge was to find out what was actually happening on the ground in Iraq. We wanted to ensure that the international library and archives community took an effective, co-ordinated approach to help institutions in Iraq to recover and rebuild.
One of the main ways the British Library was able to help was by taking part in an international programme to produce copies of cultural heritage items in our collections. In mid-October 2004, Dr Eskander reported that the Iraqi national library had lost 60% of its archival material, 25% of its ordinary books and 95% of its rare books. This made it clear that helping to rebuild the collections was going to be a key part of our aid to the INLA.
The teams in our Asia Pacific Collections department, who look after our Arabic and India Office collections, put together a list of relevant items in the British Library's collections. This enabled Dr Eskander to identify which items in our collections would be of greatest use to the INLA. He decided that the "Creation of Modern Iraq, c 1914- 1921" microfiche set of British India Office files was a key requirement, together with microfilm copies of additional items in our rare books collection. This material was handed over in a ceremony at the British Embassy in Baghdad in September 2005.
Dr Eskander told us that the INLA particularly needed undergraduate and postgraduate English texts in the social sciences, so the Library initiated an appeal for this material. More than 300 titles were donated by UK HE institutions and publishers. We also coordinated the shipping of more donations needed by the INLA.
Our imaging services team has, so far, digitised a large number of vital items from our collection to go out to Baghdad. These include over two hundred high resolution full colour digital images of maps of Iraq and early manuscript maps and records from the India Office Records. We've digitised 18,500 pages of records so far for the INLA, and have plans to digitise a further 50,000 pages.
Of course, the digitisation means that our records can be accessed by people across Iraq and the rest of the world. So, we're not only restoring the documentary history to Iraq - a history that's shared with the UK - but we're also ensuring that it can be accessed by far more people.
While we were providing material help, we also wanted to use the Library's contacts to give Dr Eskander a network of help and support that he could draw on. So we hosted a dinner for Dr Eskander, and invited senior representatives from the UK library and information community, which prompted a number of commitments of practical support.
We also wanted to give Dr Eskander a platform to bring his and the INLA's plight to a broader audience. So, between November 2006 and July 2007 we posted his diary blog on the British Library website. This provided a unique, vivid, and privileged window on the work being undertaken by Dr Eskander and his staff under, what were then, unbearably difficult circumstances. It also gave a powerful, independent description of the realities of daily life in Baghdad at the time. Most of all, from our point of view, the diary blog gained media coverage in North America, Europe and South America, bringing wider support for Dr Eskander and his colleagues.
One of the outcomes of this wider coverage for the INLA's plight was that Dr Eskander was awarded the International Archivist of the Year Award in 2007. There's still a lot of work to do at the INLA and the British Library continues to work with him to help the rebuilding programme.