Iraqi librarians and academics are battling to preserve the remaining documents and books, some of which are centuries-old, by digitising the archives and collections held in the Baghdad National Library to counter the threat to Iraq’s heritage posed by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Employees of the library, built by Britain in 1920, have embarked on a mission to preserve and digitise its historic contents, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The library was ruined following the 2003 U.S. invasion due to fires started by arsonists within the building and mass looting. Many of the tens of thousands of manuscripts and books were destroyed or damaged, according to reports following the library’s destruction. Archives from 1977 to 2003 were completely destroyed.

It was reported following the destruction that almost nothing remained in the library. Iraq’s national museum, containing artefacts up to 10,000 years old, was also ransacked, looted and destroyed, and only reopened earlier this year. It is estimated that 15,000 pieces were stolen from the museum and only one-third of these have been retrieved since.

Workers at the library are now attempting to not only digitise material but also to restore damaged pieces.There are various techniques being used to do this, including sterilising documents for two days to rid the script of dust before layering Japanese tissue page-by-page to fill tears and strengthen the document, according to AP.

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

Catherine Eagleton, the Head of Asian & African Collections at the British Library, toldNewsweek of the delicate and gradual process that lies ahead for Iraq’s librarians. “Whether it’s one item or millions of pages, digitisation is a complex process, and even more so when dealing with damaged archives, books, or manuscripts… For some damaged items, treatment to stabilise them is needed before imaging can start, and also often special handling to minimise damage while the photography is in progress.”

The move to digitise the library’s remaining archives comes after ISIS reportedly ransacked the library in Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul in February, burning approximately 100,000 books and manuscripts.

It was reported that the group may have used explosives to destroy the library but reports from the city are near-impossible to verify as it has been largely cut-off from the rest of the world by the ultra-conservative group.

At the time of the library’s destruction, Irina Bokova, the head of the UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO, called it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.”

“This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq,” she continued. “It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

ISIS is yet to challenge the Iraqi government’s territorial control of Baghdad, despite carrying out numerous suicide attacks in the city. However, in May, the group captured the capital of Anbar province, Ramadi, with the aid of double agents and sleeper cells, leaving them just 105km (64 miles) from the Iraqi capital.

A representative of the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA) was not immediately available for comment.

But defence department officials denied accusations by British archaeologists that the US government was succumbing to pressure from private collectors in America to allow plundered Iraqi treasures to be traded on the open market.

Almost nothing remains of the library’s archive of tens of thousands of manuscripts, books, and Iraqi newspapers, according to reports from the scene.

It joins a list that already includes the capital’s National Museum, one of the world’s most important troves of artefacts from the ancient Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations.

Calling the looting of historical artefacts “a catastrophe for the cultural heritage of Iraq”, Mounir Bouchenaki, the deputy director-general of the UN cultural body Unesco, announced an emergency summit of archaeologists in Paris on Thursday.

In Washington Colin Powell, the secretary of state, said the US “will be working with a number of individuals and organisations to not only secure the facility, but to recover that which has been taken, and also to participate in restoring that which has been broken… the United States understands its obligations and will be taking a leading role with respect to antiquities in general, but [the museum] in particular”.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no plans had been made to protect antiquities from looters, as opposed to ensuring that historical sites were not caught up in the fighting itself.

But the official rejected charges in a letter from nine British archaeologists, published in the Guardian yesterday, that private collectors were “persuading the Pentagon to relax legislation that protects Iraq’s heritage by prevention of sales abroad”.

Shocked staff fear further damage and ‘cultural cleansing’ under the militants’ rule
Isis in Mosul
Isis fighters parade in a commandeered Iraqi armoured vehicle down a main road in Mosul in June 2014. Photograph: AP

Reports this week that Mosul’s central library has been ransacked by Isis and 100,000 books and manuscripts burned has cast an international spotlight on a new wave of destruction that has been raging through the northern Iraqi city since last summer.

Earlier this month the head of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) voiced alarm over “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.” Director general Irina Bokova said the destruction involved museums, libraries and universities across Mosul.

She added: “This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq. It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

On Monday, Ninwa Al Ghad, a satellite channel broadcasting out of Mosul, reported that the central library had been burned with the reported loss of Iraqi newspapers from the beginning of the 20th century, as well as maps, books and collections from the Ottoman period. But confusion remains about the extent of the damage, with two local Facebook groups insisting on Thursday that, though some books were burned, the library itself was still standing.

The escalating devastation culminated on Thursday with the release of a five-minute video purportedly showing militants using sledgehammers to smash ancient artifacts in the city. The video, posted on Twitter and bearing the logo of Isis’s media arm, shows a group of bearded men in a museum using hammers and drills to destroy several large statues, including one depicting a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century BC.

The news saddens but does not surprise Shahla Kamal, who until last summer was a lecturer at Mosul University’s College of Political Science. In June she was overseeing students sitting an end-of-year exam when the dean told everyone to go home because of an immediate curfew.

Overnight, the Islamic State had taken over the city and imposed sharia laws. Shahla lost her job when Isis deemed the college “un-Islamic” and closed it along with the colleges of law, fine arts, physical education, languages, social sciences and archaeology.

Isis looted and vandalised the new multimillion-dollar physics and chemistry laboratories. Each college had its own library and these were looted, too. Some, like the library of Islamic studies, housed priceless ancient manuscripts. Not any more. The classrooms of the closed colleges and departments are now the sleeping quarters for Isis fighters, and are used as storage for their weapons cache.

In addition to the college libraries, each of Mosul University’s two campuses has a central library. Teba used to work in one of them, and visits whenever she can. The library is still intact, but Teba makes sure that squatters – who have now moved on to the campus with their farm animals – don’t use the books and furniture for firewood. She says she’s heartbroken and enraged at the fate of Mosul’s central library, and fears a similar fate for the remaining university libraries.

Mustafa was unable to salvage anything from the College of Physical Education, where he worked. The last time he went there to check on the college he was stunned to find the college’s Olympic-sized pool looking like a green swamp, and Isis fighters lounging on the furniture, their sleeping mattresses stacked up outside the dean’s office. “The Amir [Al Baghdadi] takes what the Amir wants,” the fighters said, and demanded that he hand over his keys to the department.

The college of economics and business where Soraya studied was not closed. Isis did make a number of changes, such as segregating students by gender and driving away almost all the female staff. In November 2014, Soraya quit her studies after a female Isis police officer threatened to bite her hand for taking off her regulation gloves during an exam – with the gloves on, Soraya’s pen kept slipping while she tried to write. Biting is common – one of Soraya’s friends needed three stitches on her right hand when she was bitten – and students say Isis’s female police wear a steel fitting in their mouths with jagged fangs to make their bite particularly sharp. Soraya decided at that moment to leave college and stay inside her house where she can wear anything she wants.

My family swap these stories of relatives and friends and shake our heads in disbelief. This is not the Mosul University they helped create half a century ago. In 1964, my great grandfather established the College of Pharmacy at Mosul University. He, and the other founders of Mosul University, all western-educated, brought a cadre of academics from Europe, the United States, India, Pakistan and several Arab countries to teach alongside Iraqi academics. That same multinational cadre went on to teach my parents who both went to study there in the 1970s.

As a child, my favourite pastime was to listen to my great grandfather reading stories to me and my cousins. Each was about the life of a groundbreaking scholar or scientist. “Education, education, education,” he would say to me, shaking his index finger like he was delivering a threat. He passed away in 1996. As much as I miss him, I am glad he is not alive to see Mosul today.