Rebuilding Mosul University library, one book at a time

When Iraq began to reclaim the city of Mosul from ISIS in October 2016, the online community that follows Mosul Eye — an anonymous blogger who supplied information on the city during the militants’ rule — started searching for ways to help the city rebuild.

They united in an effort to help rebuild and restock the University of Mosul’s library. ISIS had ransacked the library several years ago, early in its occupation. Militants methodically burned its 1 million “blasphemous” books, including centuries-old relics, only saving a few chemistry textbooks for making crude explosives.

The library had been one of Iraq’s cultural jewels, ranking among the Middle East’s greatest literary collections. While many of its lost books are irreplaceable, Mosul Eye and its readers hope that, by filling its shelves, they can help Mosul regain its identity as a center of learning.

Stack of burned books (© Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
These singed pages are among the few remnants to survive ISIS’s incineration of the University of Mosul library. (© Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

“Long-term vision: Rebuild the library from the ground up. But in the short-term, the goal is to get enough books for the university to function,” said Erin Hart, chairman of the Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project in Minneapolis. Her group was inspired to begin organizing a book drive after an Iraqi-American member who had heard about the library offered to take some books in his suitcase while visiting Baghdad.

James Gulliksen is helping too. He spent his last semester at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University organizing a book drive for Mosul. “We had … people calling us saying, ‘I have a library of books I want to give you,’” said Gulliksen. “Books in all sorts of languages, donated from the community, from people who have taught in Iraq.” By the end of April, Gulliksen had collected 6,200 books.

“There’s an old quote that anyone who burns books burns people, and that’s what ISIS did,” said Gulliksen.

The blogger behind Mosul Eye contacted Gulliksen about his book drive. “It is my sincere pleasure to hear this coming from someone like you who adores education … that the academic life of Mosul is of your concern,” he wrote. “I would love to thank each and every one who donates a book in a gesture of friendship that is beyond all borders.”

“Although I think it’s morally right to give people means to literacy, I think it’s also the smart thing to do because it leads to decreases in radicalization,” said Gulliksen, who studied international security at Embry-Riddle and will enter law school this year.

Burned out room with chairs and windows (© Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
ISIS destroyed facilities as well as books. Some faculty members hope to reopen the university, which once enrolled more than 40,000 students, in October. (© Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

“Research shows that radicalization stems from illiteracy, broken community, a lack of social cohesion,” Gulliksen said, but libraries and education can provide these essentials, especially in developing areas. He hopes the project can invigorate a new generation in Mosul.

Hart agrees that donating books is an effective, tangible way that someone can make a difference in the fight against violent extremism.

The Mosul Eye blogger hopes to reopen the library with 200,000 books. So far, he has 10,000, not including the 6,200 books Gulliksen collected that are in transit. The Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project is working with him to establish a national book-collection center in the United States, and a network of international partners has set up similar collections around the world.