Newsmaker: Mohammad Abbas

Posted Thursday, December 31, 2009 - 11:24
Iraq's parliamentary librarian talks about the new Library Department and the struggle for stability during a time of war and national turmoil.
Photo of Mohammad Abbas

American Libraries Editor in Chief Leonard Kniffel interviewed Mohammad Abbas, head of the new Library Department of the Iraqi Coucil of Representatives (ICOR, the nation's parliament in Baghdad) August 24 during the World Library and Information Congress of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in Milan, Italy, and by e-mail in the days following.

American Libraries: Tell us about the library and how you got it started.

My beginnings in library work were humble but strong. In March 2006 I started from zero and created a library that provides reference and information resources needed for research assistance to the 275 members of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, groups of researchers in the Research Directorate, and the ICOR staff. The government is trying to hold the country together during a time of war against occupation and terror that began after the downfall of the former regime in 2003, during which the National Library and the National Museum were looted and burned and most of the treasures and precious Iraqi cultural heritage were lost. The library has a key role to play in achieving stability.

How do you see that role?

It will be achieved through eliminating extraneous influences and ideas of extremism, eliminating the excess leisure time of youth, and consolidating national unity through providing information about all different cultures of the country in one place.

What is your background?

I was born in Baghdad in 1959 in a famous and well-known family interested in the sciences and political activities, and we have strong social relationships with many Iraqi people. I was graduated in 1982 from the college of Agriculture and Forestry in Mosel University. Then I worked as an administrative employee in a private company, in the agriculture field. I started my own private commercial business during the 1990s. In 2004 I got a chance to join the first group of officials to be recruited for the Iraqi Interim Governing Council. I had some training opportunities in basic parliament procedures, parliamentary researches, and in library cataloging.

What were some of the difficulties you faced when you established the library?

I started the library of the Iraqi Council of Representatives from zero in 2006; that was when I joined the world of libraries and research services, during a very hard time for both Iraq as a new state trying to strengthen its new democracy, and for the Iraqi people where all the infrastructure and facilities in the country were destroyed. The main difficulties were: the critical security situation that prevent us from moving in the city and the country seeking books and information resources for the library, the limited space dedicated to the library, the lack of professional employees, the absence of modern technology tools used in libraries in Iraq (so everything being done manually), the large and growing demand for library services from members of parliament and researchers, and the great variety of topics needed to be covered by the library (we have 25 committees in different fields of specialization).

What kind of a collection have you been able to build?

Now we have in the library about 10,000 books and more than 1,200 issues of periodicals, as well as theses from the Iraqi universities and newspapers, all related to the work of parliament and its committees. The main collections are:

  1. Legal—full texts of Iraqi legislation and other Arabic comparative ones, international law, criminal law, general law. This is the biggest collection.
  2. Political science—human rights, federalism, parliamentary studies.
  3. History of Iraq and other countries in the region—Turkey, Iran, and Arab countries.
  4. Economy—energy, financial studies, budget.
  5. Adminstration science.
  6. Basic reference books, dictionaries, encyclopedias.
  7. Minutes of sessions of the Iraqi parliament and other past assemblies.
  8. Periodicals: legal, political, economic.
  9. Governmental reports.
  10. Other essential collections needed in for the committees, such as education, women, family and childhood, religion, geography.
  11. Constitutions from different countries around the world.
  12. Theses from Iraqi universities.
  13. Newspapaer archives.

What is the purpose of the library, and who uses it?

It is a specialized legislative library; its mission is to support the members of parliament, committees, and the staff. Only MPs and staff can use the library now, it is not open to the public; but we also serve graduate students from Iraqi universities who have asked to prepare theses. I hope that we can provide the public with our services when we have a big separate building with more professional, trained staff.

Are you working with Saad Eskander and other librarians at the National Library to try to restore the cultural heritage that was lost during the invasion?

Our library is a new one; we are in the beginning trying to build our own capacity now by collecting the needed resources for the work of the parliament. We worked on restoring the minutes of sessions that belong to the disbanded National Council (during the past regime) and soon these historical documents will be in our possession.

We managed to recover 1,000 books stolen from a special library belonging to the past regime; they will be cleaned, classified, and stored for use.

Saad Eskander has supported us with some books and publications because the National Library is the depository library in Iraq. He is struggling to rehabilitate his library, trying his best to restore the Iraqi cultural heritage that was lost. He is doing wonderful work, considering the current Iraqi situation.

One of our library staff is doing deep research for a thesis, to get a PhD in library science and documentation about the stealing and looting of documents from the Iraqi libraries. He collected important facts and statistics about it; when it is finished I will provide you with a translated summary.

What kind of research services does the library offer and how many staff members do you have?

Our library is one of four departments in the Research Directorate, which are: Legal, Budget, General Research, and Library. Our responsibility is to provide them with information resources and statistics for MPs and the committees. Our main services, besides book loaning are reference services; when MPs, committees, researchers, and staff ask for certain information, we will start a search to collect texts of laws, regulations, treaties, statistics, etc., and provide the information without delay. We also write short research reports. We are six library staff including me, the head of the library.

What kind of danger to you face in your daily work?

Our colleagues in parliament are being targeted like any other official in the government; a car bomb could explode in any street in Baghdad or other city at any time, and, in fact, there were two big recent explosions in Baghdad in front of the ministry of foreign affairs (near our work place). The minister of finance was killed along with more than 100 others, and hundreds of people were injured. I expect more violence leading to the elections that are scheduled for January 2010.

But I’ve been living like this since 2003. We often experience many hours without electricity even during the hot summer when the temperature reaches about 50 degrees centigrade or more.

For the period of 2005–2007 when the violence was in its highest level, we could not go out of our homes after 5 p.m. But at the end of 2007 the government started to impose its control all around the country more effectively, and nowadays things are more stable and secure.

We faced many dangers during our continuous seeking of books and resources in local book markets in Baghdad. It is noteworthy that the major street book market on Al-Mutanaby Street, where all the main publishers and publishing houses that are the main book providers in Iraqi are located, was completely destroyed by a car bomb in 2007. It was a disaster to the cultural movement in Iraq; I used to go there continuously to buy books for the library. But now this street is rebuilt again by the government and publishers have resumed their activities—but not like before.

As a result of that explosion, most of the precious books were burned and destroyed, and some people started to photocopy the needed books without taking into account the intellectual property rights for the writers or the publishers, which is a negative phenomenon.

There was an explosion in side the Iraqi parliament building in 2007; one member was killed and others were injured, and that was too close to our library.

What is the library’s biggest need?

The performance of Iraqi libraries is very weak in general; they can't work without the new information technology. There is a huge gap in using technology tools in libraries between Iraq and other developed countries because of the wars and blockade that Iraq was subjected to from 1980 till now. We need to take quick and fast steps forward toward new technology and train our librarians to use that technology. This cannot be achieved without international assistance. For example, we need scanners to start digital libraries, photocopy machines, etc. International efforts are still needed to retrieve stolen books, documents, and other items that have disappeared or have been put on the black market.

What can librarians in the United States do to help?

I have a suggestion to make: that the United States build a special big Library to serve parliament, the government, and the public, and to be a second storage facility for all valuable and precious books and documents in Iraq. Provide it with latest technology and gave it as a symbol of friendship between the two nations of Iraq and the United States and to serve as a center of cultural radiance. It would be like a bridge to convey knowledge and culture from the USA to Iraq; also, it may be considered as a good compensation for the Iraqi people’s suffering.

American librarians could join together as a group and form an international committee, and organize a visit to study the real situation of the Iraqi libraries and to upgrade their function. They could provide assistance in the rehabilitation of Iraqi libraries, especially the academic libraries, and they could provide financial and technical support to the Iraqi libraries sector.

How were you offered this job and what is your goal?

I was recruited in 2004 at the first establishment of the Iraqi Interim Council as an administrative employee, and when the Research Directorate was established in 2006 I had the desire to work in library field so I could increase my knowledge.

I am well known as a hard worker among my colleges and I had the respect of my superiors, so I applied for the position and got it.

My goal was and still is to build a library in the Iraqi parliament to be a modern model, equal in its services to any other parliamentary library in any developed country. I believe that this library would help the parliament to do its role in changing Iraqi people's life for better.

Should the United States simply withdraw from Iraq?

The U.S. cannot withdraw without being sure of helping Iraq to have a strong army, well trained and supplied with new weapons capable of defending its country and borders. There are foreign forces, as well as forces of the past regime, interfering with Iraq’s affairs. The invasion of Iraq may have been considered a mistake, but abandoning us now in this hard time would be a disaster for Iraqi people.

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