Libraries in the Time of War – Talks available online

Libraries in the Time of War – Talks available online

Shelves of very old leather books
Cathedral Library of Strängnäs, part of a site visit at the 'Libraries in the Time of War' conference, 2023

Emma Cunliffe, of the Blue Shield International Secretariat, was privileged to be invited to speak at the conference Libraries in the Time of War, hosted by Uppsala University in Collaboration with IFLA Rare Books and Special Collections Section and the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL). Conference talks are available online now.

As the conference organisers outlined:

Libraries are especially impacted during times of national and international conflict. In fact, cultural heritage institutions are often targeted for destruction to undermine the national and cultural identities of those under attack. While the theft of cultural artefacts as spoils of war were historically, under the correct circumstances, in accordance with international law in the early modern period, such practices have been strongly condemned in the modern period. Nevertheless, the international community continues to witness the plunder and destruction of libraries and museums during modern armed conflicts.

Dr Cunliffe closed the day by looking to the future. Her talk, which was picked up in the Washington Post Book Club, looked at historical examples of accidental and deliberate damage to libraries, and the extreme measures librarians were forced to go to in order to try and save their collections. Those measures, whilst heroic, resulted in at least one known death (Aida Buturovic, who was killed by a mortar shrapnel on her way home after dodging snipers trying to save books from the burning National Library of Sarajevo).

Looking back to the words of  George Mackenzie,  Cunliffe highlighted:

One of the factors that stimulated the formation of ICBS was the experience of the crisis in former Yugoslavia. Cultural heritage was shown to be profoundly at risk, while the reaction of the professional community was uncoordinated and inefficient. For example, multiple missions were mounted to Sarajevo, and while doubtless helpful in showing solidarity with professional colleagues there, these were generally carried out in ignorance of each other, and valuable opportunities for sharing information and resources were missed. The Yugoslav experience also demonstrated clearly how buildings and their contents were inextricably linked, and how cultural heritage property of all types had been destroyed. There was clearly scope for increased co-operation.

Good safeguarding preparations for conflict, as called for in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, remain imperative, yet the organisational silos witnessed by Mackenzie and his colleagues remain today. The Blue Shield was founded to help break down those silos, and engage colleagues in learning from and supporting each other in preparing for and responding to conflict and disaster. The message is clear: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Evacuation and protection will be infinitely more complex to figure out if left until you are in a crisis. Blue Shield, in partnership with its founding organisations – ICOM, ICOMOS, IFLA and ICA – remain ready to assist. Watch the talks online!

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