Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Saving Books From The Fire

Whenever I see photos or footage of book burnings, I feel terrible. It feels like heartache for some reason.

I know I'm not alone. A woman in Iraq feels the same way, and because of her circumstances, she did something about it. She went and saved many books from their National Library before their country was invaded. An excerpt:

These books are fugitives, and Ms. Baker, a 50-year-old librarian in stout shoes, is the engineer of their underground railroad. As the British forces stormed Basra in early April, she spirited the volumes out of the city's Central Library, over a seven-foot wall, to the back room of a restaurant and then later into trucks to carry them to her home. Even friends and library employees have been enlisted as caretakers for troves of the books.

The books constitute about 70 percent — all there was time to save — of what was the library's collection. Nine days later, the library building was burned in a mysterious fire.

The books' survival is all the more remarkable because, in Baghdad, looters left both the National Library and a government building containing thousands of illuminated Korans in smoldering ruins. Even some manuscripts taken from the Basra library to be studied in Baghdad were destroyed.

Despite what was saved, Ms. Baker, Basra's chief librarian for 14 years, mourns what was left behind.

"It was like a battle when the books got burned," she said. "I imagined that those books, those history and culture and philosophy books, were crying, `Why, why, why?' "

Before the war began, Ms. Baker requested permission from Basra's governor to move the books to safety, but he refused without explanation.

Ms. Baker, however, is not easily deterred. Although the library did not allow lending, over the years she often slipped books into the hands of readers and sent them home.

"In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was `Read,' " she said.

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