Librarian Sentiment and the Destruction in Sarajevo

Mark Edwin Peterson


It has now been over a generation since the Bosnian War, the first disintegration of what had been Yugoslavia. Discussion of the conflict at the time largely focused on the horrifying violence taking place once again in Europe. Another aspect that shocked many, however, was the ways in which the destruction of cultural heritage served as a tool of genocide during the four years of war. Effective as any carpet-bombing raid, armies on all sides set fire to many historically-significant monasteries, schools, churches, and mosques. The most dramatic example occurred in May of 1992, when Serbian troops directed white phosphorous artillery shells at the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo, completely destroying one of the world's most important collections of medieval Islamic manuscripts. Two months later, the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, housed in Sarajevo's historic city hall, was also effectively destroyed. Unique archival collections and rare codices were lost.

International calls went out almost immediately to rebuild the collections of Sarajevo, but aid agencies were able to do very little on the ground until the war was over. Cultural heritage groups offered their sympathy, and librarians looked for replacements to donate, but the results were disappointing and never really accomplished much, even after decades of effort.1 Although the city hall was eventually rebuilt years after the war, few manuscripts were ever recovered or replaced in any way. City leaders moved the National Library,2 specializing now in online sources, to the university campus, and the Oriental Institute opened as a research center with less than 1% of its former collection3. Important resources for understanding the history of a city and many aspects of life in the Ottoman Empire are gone forever.

Countless disasters such as these litter the wake of library history. Fire, mold, and war find the crowded bookshelves just as easily as patrons. When special collections of rare books or archival documents become damaged, as in Sarajevo, that diminishes our world culture in crises that cause strong emotional reactions in many people.4 You would think that we would be spurred to learn from these events. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the international community turned away from the Sarajevo libraries as a research topic just as much as they neglected to help in concrete ways. After the first public reactions around the world, not much more was heard about Sarajevo's libraries, certainly not in English-language scholarship, which in a few cases has looked at political issues such as the international laws protecting cultural heritage, or the destructive Bosnian cultural policies since the war.5 My research here does nothing to provide further insight into the lessons of Sarajevo for the preservation or recovery of cultural heritage. What I want to do, however, is use these historic events, and our continuing public memory of them, to investigate some of the underlying sentiments that spark our emotional reactions and shape our views on the destruction of books more generally. Along the way, I hope to call attention to the destruction of Balkan cultural heritage in general (going back to the early twentieth century!) and spark further discussion of how librarians and other stewards can respond to wartime attacks on culture. My particular interest is American libraries holding special collections, because they hold so much unique material from around the world that has limited connections to contemporary American culture. Their collections serve as global storehouses, and they can be especially important in determining what material can be recovered after disaster. To begin to understand what such libraries do, I first look to the their own thoughts on what cultural heritage is for, in general, and why written culture from around the world should be kept in their special collections. A clear idea of their academic mission and their cultural significance makes it easier to understand what American libraries can do to protect cultural heritage around the world, including efforts to influence the policies of the United States.

One significant work that does cover the destruction of Sarajevo's libraries is Richard Ovenden's recent Burning the Books. With the chapter, "Sarajevo Mon Amour," Ovenden lays out the events of 1992 step-by-step, with heavy stress on the heroism of librarians. He describes how attacks on cultural heritage harm the local community, and how rebuilding collections can play a part in helping people recover, making them feel resilient. "Despite these threats the preservation of knowledge goes on"6. Much of the preservation Ovenden discusses involves digitization. Producing digital surrogates makes it possible to give worldwide access to rare books, but it can also save books, in some ways, when the originals cannot be kept safe. Many of the special collections in the United States have pursued digitization in a big way for over thirty years, in order to let the world know about their treasures but also to keep fragile paper from being handled by every researcher with an interest in the material. Their management of digital collections made up of rare written culture, is one more reason why American libraries play a significant role in how the international community responds to the destruction of libraries. AndrĂ¡s Riedlmayer, a fine arts cataloger at Harvard, has done a lot to put together what can be recovered from the items destroyed in Sarajevo into digital copies, available to everyone. His example, discussed below, illustrates the potential of librarians to work directly at cultural recovery and to advocate for stronger protections.

A very different result of American efforts to digitize library material can be seen in the presence of special collections on social media. Because they can pull interesting images from their stores of material and can link them to unfamiliar bits of history, the librarians and archivists who work with digital collections have strong voices in the social media world of academic libraries, even for the university as a whole. The curator of early books & manuscripts at Harvard, John Overholt, has 22,689 followers on Twitter. Some institutional collections are even more popular. The libraries of the Smithsonian reach more than 66,000 people with their following on Instagram. Because prominent special collections post so much on Twitter, in particular, this study looks at tweets to track, along with more general mission statements, to show that special collections librarians in America consider the digital turn to be not just a new tool in their work to assemble material for researchers, while keeping that material safe, but also a method for libraries to continue to control and shape the resources available to those of us trying understand the culture of the past. Even as the world gains the ability to access so much information online, in the humanities knowledge continues to be shaped by libraries and, when it comes to academic research, to a surprising extent, by the digital resources controlled by special collections of American libraries.