Shelby Foote, an American novelist and historian, suggested that a university is a group of buildings gathered around a library. In Mosul, Iraq, this was indeed the case. In fact, the university library there was not only the beating heart of the University of Mosul but of the city itself.
Built in 1967, Mosul University Library was the largest in northern Iraq and one of the largest in the Middle East and North Africa. The space once housed more than one million books—600,000 Arabic-language materials and 400,000 resources in English and other languages—for 150 university departments covering diverse fields of knowledge.
The collection also included periodicals dating back to 1700CE, government publications from the founding of the modern Iraqi state in 1921, and versions of the Quran from the 19th century. Foreign culture corners gave students and researchers the chance to explore diverse literary traditions and ways of life in other countries.
As a house of learning and knowledge at the centre of the university, the library was among the first institutions targeted by ISIS after their occupation of Mosul in 2014.
They would later burn it completely, destroying nearly all of its contents and the building’s structure.
Following the liberation of Mosul from ISIS, around 50,000 students and university staff are now struggling to complete their academic work, not to mention other independent researchers from Mosul, nearby cities and other parts of Iraq.
The RSE Young Academy of Scotland is helping to change this. In 2016 we welcomed four at-risk academic and refugee members, among them Dr Alaa Hamdon, a geologist from the University of Mosul who specialises in disaster management.
He had left Mosul in January 2015 and secured a position at the University of Aberdeen. When he returned to Iraq in 2017, he sought to help his city and university begin their slow recovery by founding a campaign called Mosul Book Bridge (mosulbookbridge.org) to bring the plight of the university library to the world’s attention and to generate support to restock and rebuild it.
With the help of Dr Caroline Sandes, an archaeologist at University College London with expertise in post-conflict urban regeneration, he enlisted the support of the UK-based charity Book Aid International (bookaid.org) and through them organised a major shipment of brand new academic books, carefully chosen to complement the degree courses now resuming at the university. Further shipments from Book Aid International are planned for the coming year.
These book donations are a major step forward for the university library, but Dr Hamdon has other ambitions for Mosul Book Bridge too. With the ongoing support of Dr Sandes and the help of a number of Young Academy of Scotland members, he is now working to secure IT equipment and electronic journals for the university library, much needed given how limited the space for hard copy books is in the temporary library buildings.
There are also plans to support the restoration of the city of Mosul’s main public library, also affected by the conflict, and to establish some book buses to travel the city bringing books to its people.
The challenges facing Iraq as it responds to ongoing security concerns are immense. Meanwhile, however, the lives of its citizens continue. The majority of the population in Iraq is aged under 24 and it is these same young people who will shape the country’s future.
By calling for international support, Mosul Book Bridge argues that education is the key to realising a peaceful and prosperous future for Iraq. It believes that students in Mosul should have access to the same up-to-date resources that students in Scotland can access in their libraries if they are to overcome the tests that lie ahead.
A modern, well-stocked Mosul University Library can serve as a site for the free exchange of ideas among students and the wider citizenry, an invaluable asset as the city rebuilds.
In extending our help and friendship to our academic colleague in Iraq, members of the Young Academy of Scotland and the Mosul Book Bridge Team are keen to promote wider collaboration between UK institutions to support the city, region and country in their recovery.
Alice König and Kate Walker, members of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland.