Fine Books & Collections: July/August 2006

Booking in Balad

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I have said on numerous occasions that I will go pretty much anywhere in pursuit of a compelling book story, though I must confess the invitation I received from a total stranger gave me pause to reconsider such a bold declaration of purpose, if only for a short while.

This past February, Lieutenant Colonel Brian C. McNerney, public affairs officer for the 3rd Corps Support Command, asked if I would consider speaking at the dedication of a new library. The catch was that the library he had just established was in a recreation building at Camp Anaconda—a sprawling supply complex and air base forty-two miles north of Baghdad at Balad that is central to the United States’s ongoing military effort in Iraq.

Prior to its opening, there were no organized reading facilities available to the 25,000 service and civilian personnel assigned to the base. There were first-run Hollywood films, an impressively equipped gymnasium, two swimming pools, a plethora of computer terminals with high-speed access to the Internet, even Burger King and Pizza Hut restaurants, but up until March 16, no libraries, and no formal place set aside for reading.

McNerney would later cite the priorities young people have today for their leisure activities as the most likely reason for that omission, but he said uncertainty over the time American forces would remain in Iraq had likely been a factor as well. “Nobody knows how long this base is supposed to exist, so there were infrastructure issues to consider,” he told me. “It would not be inaccurate to say that when this massive operation was being pulled together, provisions for a library were not part of the original scheme of things.”

All that changed when McNerney traveled to Germany last year to take part in a memorial function to commemorate the ending of the Second World War. While there, he met a number of Army veterans who had served with the 65th and 71st Infantry Divisions and learned how they had set up public libraries in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war. One project in particular, the Europa-Bücherei, continues to function today as the municipal library for the city of Passau in lower Bavaria, an operation that lends out 300,000 books a year, and one I would see first-hand on my way home from Iraq.

During his trip to Germany, McNerney wondered aloud if any of these veterans, most of whom are now in their eighties, would be interested in replicating their triumph of sixty years earlier on a modest scale in Iraq. To his delighted surprise, the answer was a resounding yes. Assuming responsibility for the project in the United States was Robert Patton, an eighty-four-year-old resident of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who was among the first American soldiers to liberate the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria in 1945, and a retired computer executive whose specialty in civilian life was problem-solving.

As immediate past president of the 65th Infantry Division Association, Patton initiated a spirited effort that quickly won the backing of residents in the Triangle region of North Carolina, home to Duke University, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University. “My imagination went out of control,” Patton told me. “Colonel McNerney said he needed books. I asked what kind he wanted. He said he had basically nothing, so he needed the gamut. He told me how much space he had, and I took it from there.”

Patton said it helped that he lives in an academic community that has a thriving book culture. “I also felt that regardless of whatever political views anyone has about the war in Iraq, books give us a kind of common ground where we can all agree on something. And the response was just remarkable. Everyone wanted to contribute.”

Patton mobilized dozens of volunteers, including staffers at the Chapel Hill Public Library and Boy Scouts from Troop 39, one of the nation’s oldest continuously chartered troops, who boxed books and loaded them onto trucks for transfer to Pope Air Force Base, where they were sent to Balad in two shipments. The 10,000 volumes gathered included fiction and nonfiction, literary titles and thrillers, biography, history, and commentary, altogether “a pretty solid critical mass of material to get us started,” McNerney said.

McNerney said his ultimate goal is to turn the library over to the people of Balad. Indeed, phase two of the project will focus on books with particular local appeal: richly visual children’s books, for instance, or titles that bridge language barriers, or professional monographs such as medical texts.

While I was in Balad, a project undertaken by Captain Yancy Caruthers, a nurse in civilian life at Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains, Missouri, had just presented one thousand medical books and journals published since 2000 to staff members at Balad General Hospital, all of them donated by his friends and colleagues back home.

In his first e-mail to me, McNerney introduced himself as “another lover of books, an inveterate collector and believer that—more than anything else—inside them can we find the wisdom to make the future a little less war-ridden than the present and the past.” A career Army officer with a master’s degree in English from Michigan State University, McNerney is a former West Point literature instructor who wrote his thesis

on the Vietnam War writings of novelist Tim O’Brien.

In accepting his proposal, I asked McNerney if it would be possible to see Ur, the Sumerian city in lower Mesopotamia where the Old Testament tells us the prophet Abraham was born, where writing as we know it began to take shape some five thousand years ago, where humanity’s first literary text, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is believed by some scholars to have been composed, and where the world’s first libraries may well have been located.

He not only arranged for me to visit that legendary city—which I judge to be one of the highlights of my professional life—but said he would try to squeeze in a trip to Mosul, where Sir Austen Henry Layard uncovered the ruins of Nineveh in the 1840s, and found the fabled library of Ashurbanipal, containing some 25,000 cuneiform tablets that are now a prized holding of the British Museum in London. Unfortunately, a major air offensive up north precluded our getting there.

McNerney laughed when I described him as a modern-day Don Quixote embarked on a fanciful mission to bring books to the desert. He did agree, though, with the observation I made at the dedication of the Halbert and Red Circle Library—the name is a reference to the shoulder insignia of the 65th and 71st divisions—that where there are books, there is always hope.

After I left Iraq, I hooked up with a group of veterans in Passau, a beautiful medieval city of 60,000 residents on the Danube. Local officials were honoring them for their efforts in organizing the Europa-Bücherei library. My host for this leg of the journey was Dr. Olivia Kelsch, the library’s director. From a bibliographic standpoint, the absolute highlight of this sidetrip was a visit she arranged to Staatliche Bibliothek Passau, or Passau State Library, home to an extraordinary collection of 360,000 books, including more than five hundred incunabula and 320 manuscripts, a number of them dating to the thirteenth century, and exquisitely illuminated.

Founded in 1612 as a Jesuit college, the holdings are now fully accessible to students and scholars at the University of Passau. Several rooms, however, are not open to the public, and I had a chance to view them in the company of Dr. Jörg Kastner, the director. By far the most dazzling is a room opened in 1720 and known today as the Stucksall—the Stucco Room—for the dazzling plaster frescoes that adorn the vaulted walls and ceilings. About a dozen towering bookcases house the most valuable books in the collections.

Altogether, an extraordinary couple of weeks in the field. Seldom have the words of the nineteenth-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton—and author of the bibliophilic classic, The Book-Hunter—seemed more apt: that a great library cannot be constructed, it is the growth of ages.