Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The fate of Iraq's seized documents

Many will be familiar with the story of the millions of records removed from the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) by the US military after the invasion in 2003. Contrary to an article published in the Brunei Times earlier this year, the INLA's archives are still retained by the US Department of Defence, Central Intelligence Agency, and Hoover Institution at Stanford University. A special Iraqi delegation to the US in April formally requested their return, an event that was covered at the time by Reuters.

I mentioned previously that digitisation cannot be relied upon as a preservation tool, but in some instances it can seem to hold great potential indeed, often revolving around issues of access. When I first heard about the problem of the INLA's seized records, it seemed that a straightforward solution would be to digitise the collections, thus allowing for digital copies to either be retained in the US and the originals returned or, at the very least, provide digital copies to the INLA. This was rather naive.

I've recently been in touch with Jeff Spurr of the Sabre Foundation and chair of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA) Committee on Iraq Libraries, who updated me on the situation and kindly shared his report on the Committee's San Diego meeting of November 17. As it happens, the Iraqi records were digitised some time ago, but there is as yet no timetable for their return to the INLA. It's unclear why this is the case - the US Department of State has been supportive of Iraqi cultural initiatives in several other regards - but the conversation for their return has at least begun. Dr. Saad Eskander, Director of the INLA, has detailed the problem in an excellent article here.

The post-Saddam INLA under Dr. Eskander has seen the largest reader numbers since its foundation in 1961. His vision is one of open scholarship: the MELA report details extensive expansion in the development of digital collections at the INLA and the desire to make the US-held records fully available from within Iraq is clearly seen as essential for the process of reconciliation there. As detailed in Dr. Eskander's article above, the records are currently only being made available to select US higher education institutions for research under the aegis of the Pentagon's Minerva project.

It would seem that, whatever the potential for open research (or even reconciliation) that would come from the return of Iraq's records, it will be politics that decides the outcome. Similarly, while digital media has great potential to facilitate communication, collaboration and, in this case, Dr. Eskander's vision for the INLA, it will ultimately be people and politics determining the fruition of that technological potential.

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