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Protecting Iraq's past

BELIEVING that the richness of daily life as well the strength of political structures contributes to stability, three Massachusetts colleges are helping to rebuild Iraqi libraries and other cultural resources. "It's a little bit of good news in a sea of horrible news," says Michele Cloonan, dean of the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

With librarians from Harvard and other institutions, Cloonan is part of a team developing a training program that will be offered in Jordan for Iraqi librarians. It's an attempt to make up for what has been lost in the current war and during 20 years of neglect.

Libraries need more than books, Cloonan explains. Librarians need up-to-date professional skills to catalogue and circulate books. And now that they are emerging from a totalitarian regime, Iraqi librarians should have more room to exert their own authority, so they'll need the tools and resources to make strong decisions.

The American team will use a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities "Recovering Iraq's Past" initiative. The first step is a meeting to hear directly from Iraqi librarians. The next step is to develop a curriculum and run classes. In between, mentors and specific projects will keep professional relations active and fresh.

Cloonan sees this as a 10-year project that will need more funding so Iraqi librarians can study at Simmons and American librarians can work in Iraq.

John Russell, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art, is using a $66,000 NEH grant for cultural preservation in northern Iraq. Russell, an art history professor who has been working in Iraq since last year, will use the money to pay for an assessment of ancient Neo-Assyrian palaces and related structures at Nineveh and Nimrud.

It's the beginning of what should become a massive conservation effort. Russell worked hard to convince the World Monuments Fund to include these palaces on its list of the 100 most endangered sites. It's also another story of tragic cultural neglect and abuse. The sites have suffered environmental damage. Lacking adequate resources, the Iraqi Department of Antiquities could not control looting. The war has led to more looting and vandalism. Some sculptures have been damaged and others sold.

Ending violence and establishing political stability must be the first priorities in Iraq. But the rescue and preservation of Iraqi culture and history is vital. This is a way to maintain the world's record of human achievement -- both good and bad, altruistic or self-serving, visionary or perverse. And in the face of disclosure of egregious abuses of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, this work is a small way to remind Iraq and the world that the US commitment to humane progress is more than empty rhetoric. 

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