Campus & Community

Simmons, Harvard team up to help devastated Iraqi libraries

3 min read

NEH grant seeks to modernize war-torn libraries, reverse librarian shortage

Responding to the devastating effects of war on Iraqi libraries, the Harvard University Library (HUL) system and Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) are launching a joint program to provide training for Iraqi librarians and archivists.

The program will aid in modernizing Iraqi libraries and help to address Iraq’s shortage of professional librarians. The program links the Simmons GSLIS – one of the premier library-science institutions – with the library and information science professionals of Harvard University, which is home to the world’s largest academic library.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded Harvard and Simmons $100,000 for the two-year project. The grant is part of the NEH program “Recovering Iraq’s Past,” which funds projects to help rebuild Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The program will begin in May, when a team of Simmons faculty and Harvard librarians meets with Iraqi librarians in Amman, Jordan, for a curriculum planning retreat. The Iraqis will identify their needs for training to rebuild collections and to modernize their library systems. Subsequently, Simmons faculty will teach graduate library courses for Iraqi librarians. In collaboration with Harvard librarians, they will oversee a series of special projects and serve as long-term mentors via the Internet.

Michèle Cloonan, dean of the Simmons GSLIS and principal investigator for the NEH grant, noted that more than two decades of war and economic sanctions, as well as the chaos of the recent regime change, have left the centuries-old Iraqi book and manuscript collections with a “vast array of problems” and few librarians with contemporary professional training and expertise.

“For years,” Cloonan stated, “resources were withheld from cultural institutions in Iraq, and the recent war has resulted in widespread destruction. Librarians were cut off from technological and professional development. The United States has some of the best library and information science programs in the world, and we’re pleased to be able to bring our training to the Iraqis. So much has changed in library and information science since the Iran-Iraq war two decades ago. The Internet wasn’t even in use.”

According to political scientist Sidney Verba, Harvard’s Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, librarians from Harvard will play a critical role in the Iraqi program. “The Harvard library is pleased to have this opportunity to join with Simmons to work with our Iraqi library colleagues,” said Verba, “and to help rebuild the intellectual base of higher education in Iraq.”

In addition to taking library and archival courses, the Iraqis will work with Simmons and Harvard library specialists on special projects that the Iraqis identify as most needed to rebuild their contemporary and historic collections and to modernize their library systems.