Iraq Digitising Baghdad National Library Archives In Face of ISIS Threat

Iraqi librarians and academics are battling to preserve the remaining documents and books, some of which are centuries-old, by digitising the archives and collections held in the Baghdad National Library to counter the threat to Iraq's heritage posed by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Employees of the library, built by Britain in 1920, have embarked on a mission to preserve and digitise its historic contents, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The library was ruined following the 2003 U.S. invasion due to fires started by arsonists within the building and mass looting. Many of the tens of thousands of manuscripts and books were destroyed or damaged, according to reports following the library's destruction. Archives from 1977 to 2003 were completely destroyed.

It was reported following the destruction that almost nothing remained in the library. Iraq's national museum, containing artefacts up to 10,000 years old, was also ransacked, looted and destroyed, and only reopened earlier this year. It is estimated that 15,000 pieces were stolen from the museum and only one-third of these have been retrieved since.

Workers at the library are now attempting to not only digitise material but also to restore damaged pieces.There are various techniques being used to do this, including sterilising documents for two days to rid the script of dust before layering Japanese tissue page-by-page to fill tears and strengthen the document, according to AP.

"Those are the most difficult books to restore," Fatma Khudair, the senior employee in the restoration department, told AP. "We apply steam using a specialized tool to try to loosen and separate the pages."

"Sometimes, we are able to save those books and then apply other restoration techniques, but with others, the damage is irreversible," she added.

Catherine Eagleton, the Head of Asian & African Collections at the British Library, told Newsweek of the delicate and gradual process that lies ahead for Iraq's librarians. "Whether it's one item or millions of pages, digitisation is a complex process, and even more so when dealing with damaged archives, books, or manuscripts... For some damaged items, treatment to stabilise them is needed before imaging can start, and also often special handling to minimise damage while the photography is in progress."

The move to digitise the library's remaining archives comes after ISIS reportedly ransacked the library in Iraq's second biggest city of Mosul in February, burning approximately 100,000 books and manuscripts.

It was reported that the group may have used explosives to destroy the library but reports from the city are near-impossible to verify as it has been largely cut-off from the rest of the world by the ultra-conservative group.

At the time of the library's destruction, Irina Bokova, the head of the UN's cultural agency, UNESCO, called it "one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history."

"This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq," she continued. "It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people."

ISIS is yet to challenge the Iraqi government's territorial control of Baghdad, despite carrying out numerous suicide attacks in the city. However, in May, the group captured the capital of Anbar province, Ramadi, with the aid of double agents and sleeper cells, leaving them just 105km (64 miles) from the Iraqi capital.

A representative of the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA) was not immediately available for comment.