Biblioteca: Information Access in Iraq

by Aaron Bowen, MLIS Day

Amid the myriad of issues detailed in reports emanating from Iraq is one that receives comparatively little attention: the level of information access afforded the Iraqi population. While access to print materials has existed for hundreds of years in Iraq and Internet access was available during the 1990s, the levels of access were subject to government control under the Baathist party, and have fluctuated by time period. In the wake of the two U.S.-led wars, Internet access has become unrestricted (although still currently controlled by the U.S.) and has become more widespread, according to this page by Reporters without Borders. Iraqi libraries are also unrestricted but have suffered enough damage to make them virtually unusable.

Before the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq had an extensive and well developed system of universities. These universities, writes Annie O'Shea (2004), fostered a strong period of growth for libraries in Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s. Mohammed M. Aman (2002) adds that an organization called the Arab League Documentation Center was integrating Iraq into a set of lending agreements with other countries. They both say, however, that the Iraqi government held a strong measure of control over information access. Whether the government used this control specifically to suppress political opposition or whether the official controls were more extensive presumably depended on the government's view of what constituted "opposition," but this nonetheless led to extensive official control of information (O'Shea, 2004; Aman, 1992).

The government also controlled the level of access to the Internet and censored certain online content. Reporters without Borders says there was only one Internet service provider, Uruklink, under official control, as well as 57 "Internet centres" and no private connections in the country.

The conditions of library and digital information access have changed considerably from 1991 forward. During the first Gulf War, libraries suffered from extensive bomb damage - this page of UNESCO's Education for All initiative notes the loss of nearly 900,000 pieces of media equipment and over one million books from school libraries - as well as the departure of non-Iraqi librarians. The aftermath of this conflict carried further negative implications for libraries, such as diminished Arabic publishing and difficulties obtaining foreign titles, as well as difficulties obtaining material goods for assembling books (O'Shea, 2004). Finally, the current conflict has added to the problem, with the destruction or partial destruction and looting of libraries and other collections of cultural artifacts. In April of 2003 American Libraries Online published this report on the destruction of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, and in mid 2003, Nabil Al-Tikriti of the University of Chicago offered this assessment of the state of Iraqi manuscript libraries and cultural institutions. The looting of Iraqi libraries and museums also prompted two advisers to the Bush Administration, Martin Sullivan and Gary Vikan to resign in 2003, reported American Libraries Online. In short, the picture of the state of libraries in Iraq, while still incomplete, generally shows a system of libraries severely damaged and ravaged by theft, with the remaining materials in states of disarray.

But there may be some positive developments as well. The coalition forces currently occupying Iraq have faced many criticisms of not offering adequate protection to cultural repositories, but the Library of Congress and the State Department has also sent a team of librarians to the National Library and Archives of Iraq to assess the damage done to it and offer recommendations on how the library's collection may be preserved in the future. The National Endowment for the Humanities has also awarded the following six grants aimed at preserving Iraq's cultural heritage. While it seems largely aimed at giving Iraqis the knowledge and tools to preserve ancient heritage, the grant to Simmons College in particular offers training to future Iraqi librarians.

Efforts at restoring Iraqi libraries however have been subject to politics. In May of 2003 Inter Press Service reported a French librarian, Jean-Marie Arnoult, was denied a visa to travel to Iraq with a UNESCO team, seemingly because of his nationality. While he was part of a second UNESCO team that went to Iraq in June and July of 2003, his initial visa trouble betrays the fact that current politics affect reconstruction efforts of Iraqi libraries and cultural repositories.

With the fall of the Baathist government, Internet access has opened up substantially, and there are plans underway to introduce a mobile phone network. The Reporters without Borders page noted that while Internet access is still under U.S. control it is uncensored, and many cybercafés have opened up. It also noted that home connections are available for the first time, mostly in Baghdad.

Baathist legislation forbade the use of cell phones, so their deposition prompted a wave of speculation by multiple wireless service providers interested in building or helping to build a cellular network in Iraq. This was also subject to political concerns. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced a bill to Congress to favor a Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) platform for cellular service, which is the type of platform used in the United States - nearly all of the rest of the world uses the Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications platform. While plans to make both platforms operational in future generations of cell phones exist, the platforms are still largely incompatible with each other. So not only would favoring CDMA give an advantage to American cellular providers, it would render the GSM cell phones that are largely ubiquitous outside of the U.S. unusable in Iraq. (Computerworld reported in October of 2003 that Iraq's network would be based on the GSM platform).

The state of information services in Iraq is presently in a state of flux. From the destruction of large elements of Iraq's library system and plans for their reconstruction to the upsurge of Internet use, little is certain about what will happen with Iraqi information access in the future. This report by Dahr Jamail gives the questions on the future of access a particularly human face by describing the intellectual curiosity of a 24 year-old Iraqi citizen named Hashim Ashure. In the makeshift library where he reads, Jamail reports, Ashure expressed a desire to read and learn: "Before I was a soldier and it was a very difficult life and I didn't have any time to read… but now it is very useful for me, and I like to come here everyday at night to read. I find it is very fun and it's beautiful to learn. I feel like I was blind before."

Works Cited
  • O'Shea, A. 2004. Under Threat: Libraries in Iraq. Library Mosaics, July/August 2004, p. 14-17.

  • Aman, M. 1992. Libraries and Information Systems in the Arab Gulf States: After the War. Journal of Information Science 18, #6, p. 447-451.


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Page last updated: December 7, 2004