April 19, 2018

We Are the Monuments Men | Peer to Peer Review

Hammad Rauf KhanI recently watched the 2014 film The Monuments Men, which tells the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program that was established under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies during World War II. The program was tasked with rescuing fine art pieces before the Nazis had a chance to destroy or steal them. Sadly, the program ended in 1946. It is very much needed today.

Today we face a new enemy: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS. ISIS’s main goal is to reinvent society under its own misguided definition of Islam. It is known to rely heavily on social media to promote its propaganda and censor anything that does not meet its agenda.

Recently ISIS burned down the Mosul Public Library, which housed over 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. The library was established in 1921 and should be considered a cultural heritage landmark along with the rare books housed inside. The world lost a significant part of its history and culture in a matter of minutes. When ISIS, or any entity, burns a library, it destroys an institution of learning and censors resources and materials. The saddest part is that some of the materials burnt in the Mosul Public Library cannot be reproduced.

In destroying the library, ISIS has broken many local and international laws, including the 1954 Hague Treaty, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflicts. The treaty was brought forth after the massive destruction of cultural and heritage sites during World War II and is still in force among 120 nations, including the United States of America, Syria, and Iraq.
Nonetheless, not much is being done to protect libraries.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has just held a ninth meeting of the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The committee urged states to avoid harming cultural property by armed forces and condemned the repeated and deliberate attacks against cultural property in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq. It has asked the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq to ratify the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention and submit their requests to the committee for granting enhanced protection to cultural property, on an emergency basis.

UNESCO is doing its part, but are we doing ours? We as librarians have a duty to preserve and save information from censorship for future generations. We also have a responsibility to help our fellow librarians who are facing challenges and hardships in fulfilling this duty owing to the conflict in their region. We as librarians in the United States need to reach out to our fellow librarians and organizations in countries that are experiencing political unrest and armed conflicts and try to establish what needs to be saved and protected until the conflict is resolved. Immediate action needs to be taken to preserve rare valuable documents and artifacts that can be easily damaged before we lose them forever. We need to assess what is important and needs to be rescued. Libraries, especially university libraries and United Nations libraries, along with archives departments, will be key in preserving and storing these items until the conflict is resolved.

By not preserving these rare items, we are not only ignoring a very important part of our past but could very possibly be losing our informational foundation for the future.



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  1. Gary Fong says:

    Your middle name is Rauf?

  2. Angela Wolff says:

    Thank you for bringing more light to this subject. What can we do, as librarians in the states, to help protect the cultural heritage that is threatened by these fear-mongers? Besides sharing news and articles like this, what can we do to stop such unbridled violence against their own heritage?

    • Hammad Rauf Khan says:

      One of the pillars of librarianship is preserving information and avoiding censorship. What is happening in Syria and Iraq is the direct opposite of what we as librarians stand for. We have a responsibility in preserving materials and information, especially rare items such as those burnt in the Mosul Public Library. We need to be proactive when it comes to preserving materials by assessing what needs to be saved before the conflict even begins. Every library that houses rare materials needs to have a plan in place for if and when a conflict arises.

      The people of Iraq and Syria have not only lost rare books, manuscripts, and art that reflect their culture and heritage, but the world has also lost part of its history. We as a society build upon the research and information found throughout the centuries to progress. We also look to our past to understand where we are today. We have lost a part of our past. It has been erased and censored by ISIS.

      You asked how do we stop the violence? That is a good question, but very difficult to answer. One answer I can give based on past research is that if the majority of the citizens of a country have had a formal education, the chances of violent crimes are less than those that have not. Education is a threat to ISIS. Libraries play a big role in education and with the destruction of libraries in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is in fact censoring people from obtaining information, knowledge, and education. We are in danger of possibly having a generation of Syrian and Iraqi children brainwashed by ISIS due to censorship. These children will never be exposed to other viewpoints and culture.

      I wrote this to bring awareness to what happened and to start the discussion among librarians on what we can do to help other librarians who are unable to protect rare materials during a time of conflict. I understand locally we have many challenges, but we cannot condone for the destruction and censorship of rare materials in any part of the world.

  3. An important group for librarians to engage with is the US committee of the blue shield (http://uscbs.org/). The USCBS connects to government, and hence military, and it serves as a bridge between branches of the cultural heritage community have a stake in these issues.

    Within the Armed Forces, Brigadier General Erik Peterson, Brigadier General Hugh Van Roosen, and Major Tommy Livoti have been exploring a commissioning program to engage cultural heritage professionals in advising the military about identifying, protecting, and recovering artifacts.