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Facing Islamic State threat, Iraq digitises national library

The dimly-lit, dust-caked stacks of the Baghdad National Library hide a treasure of the ages: crinkled, yellowing papers holding the true stories of sultans and kings; imperialists and socialists; occupation and liberation; war and peace.

These are the original chronicles of Iraq’s rich and tumultuous history and now librarians and academics in Baghdad are working feverishly to preserve what’s left after thousands of documents were lost or damaged at the height of the US-led invasion.

As Islamic State militants set out to destroy Iraq’s history and culture, including irreplaceable books and manuscripts kept in the militant-held city of Mosul, a major preservation and digitisation project is underway in the capital to safeguard a millennium worth of history.

In darkrooms in the library’s back offices, employees use specialised lighting to photograph some of the most-precious manuscripts. Mazin Ibrahim Ismail, the head of the microfilm department, said they’re testing the process with documents from the Interior Ministry under Iraq’s last monarch, Faisal II, who ruled from 1939 to 1958.

“Once restoration for some of the older documents from the Ottoman era, 200 to 250 years ago, is completed, we will begin to photograph those onto microfilm,” Ismail said. He said the digital archives, which will not be made available immediately to the public, is more to ensure their content survive any future threat.

The restoration process is nothing short of microsurgery, and the type damage to each document is a story and a puzzle on its own. Some manuscripts are torn from overuse and aging; others are burned or stained from attack or sabotage. And then there are some that were completely fossilised over time the combined result of moisture and scorching temperatures looking instead like large rocks dug up from the earth.

“Those are the most difficult books to restore,” said Fatma Khudair, the senior employee in the restoration department. “We apply steam using a specialised 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.

Technicians sterilise manuscripts and documents for 48 hours, washing them of dust and other impurities that accumulated over time. Then, they go page by page using Japanese tissue, specialised paper for book conservation and restoration, to either fill in torn edges or layer the more- delicate documents with a sheer coating to make them more durable.

The Baghdad National Library, established by the British in 1920 on donations and first overseen by a Catholic priest, has weathered violent upheaval before.