Thursday, July 14, 2005

Helping Iraq's Medical Libraries

Contrary to what the majority of ALA Council seem to believe, most of Iraq's libraries were in anything but good shape when US forces liberated the country from Saddam Hussein's tyranny. This was not because of UN sanctions or a lack of funds. After all, the Iraqi dictator brought in billions of dollars in illegal oil revenues. Unfortunately for Iraqi libraries, however, Saddam preferred to spend the money on palaces, rebuilding his military infrastructure, and sponsoring terrorism.

Particularly hard hit were Iraqi medical and scientific libraries, whose collections were allowed to become dangerously out of date. Michael Yon, who is in Iraq, explains in this terrific post:

In the months immediately following the collapse of the Saddam regime, but before the tumor of insurgency invaded the body, medical officers attached to the 4th Infantry Division met with doctors and professors of the region's medical schools and hospitals, to assess needs and find ways to share resources to facilitate the rehabilitation of the health care system. Two of the key medical officers of the Division, LTC Kirk Eggleston, the Division Surgeon (and hence the principal medical staff officer ) and Major Alex Garza, the Division's Civil Affairs Medical Officer, visited the Medical College of the University of Tikrit.

During initial visits, they were taken aback by a discovery that Iraqi doctors and medical students were relying on photocopies of outdated medical texts for information. Initial inquiries revealed that what looked like an isolated case of an improvised library was actually the presenting symptom of a systemic deficiency--Iraq's scientific and technical resources were dangerously malnourished. All over Iraq, teachers and students were using photocopies of outdated textbooks and had been doing so for decades.

This was not about saving money; the cost of making the photocopies can be higher than purchasing books and journals. The issue was availability. Iraqi physicians and professors could not simply shop online and purchase a title for shipment to Iraq. Basic medical science textbooks as well as those relating to the medical specialties were only available as well-thumbed copies of out-of-date editions. Medical journals were similarly unavailable.

While ALA Council chooses to depict our forces in Iraq as a horde of vandals who have all but destroyed that country's libraries and museums, Yon explains how it is American soldiers, in cooperation with civilian doctors here in the States, who have mounted a heroic effort to supply Iraqi medical libraries with current textbooks and journals. By contrast, the terrorists can be counted on to do everything possible to prevent Iraq's libraries from joining the 21st century, just as they have fought against every other element of progress in post-Saddam Iraq. A continued American commitment is the best hope Iraqi libraries have of becoming the kind of institutions that a democratic, pluralist country needs.


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