During this tumultuous time in Iraq's rebuilding efforts, the students of Baghdad University have reason to remain optimistic: campuses across the United States, Canada, and England are collecting thousands of textbooks as part of a campaign to revitalize Baghdad University's library, which has suffered a critical shortage of academic resources and books for its students. The international effort, known as the Books for Baghdad project, has promised to change the landscape of education at one of Iraq's most distinguished institutions.
Books for Baghdad, begun just over a year ago, is the creation of Safaa Al-Hamdani, a professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Al-Hamdani came up with the idea as a solution to a textbook shortage that made coursework and studying for exams nearly impossible for students in Iraq. "The faculty and students of Baghdad University have not had access to new texts since before 1990, so their need for books is massive and urgent," Al-Hamdani said in his mission statement.
An Iraqi-born American citizen and alumnus of Baghdad University, Al-Hamdani began the project after ambushes on American soldiers and subsequent looting left the university's library in ruins. Al-Hamdani quickly gathered support from students and colleagues for his initiative. Though he remained optimistic throughout the project, Al-Hamdani admitted, "I never thought it would get this big."
One of the most recent schools to participate, the University of Chicago has been working actively on the project since a small group of students decided to get involved. Mike Monteleone, a third-year in the College, recalls taking the initiative with fellow students to start their very own Chicago branch of the Books for Baghdad project. The University joins an international cast of Books for Baghdad affiliates, including the University of Alabama, Air Force Research Laboratory, McGill University in Canada, and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
"After awhile, I got so sick of politics," Monteleone said. "Everyone was so divided over the war, and I thought that a neutral, non-partisan approach would be the best."
Monteleone and Dennis Toy, a second-year in the College, joined forces with Elizabeth Kim, a second-year graduate student at the Harris School who had been working with the Committee of International Affairs and Public Policy (CIAPP). The three of them, with the help of CIAPP, contacted the Jacksonville headquarters and set up the Chicago Books for Baghdad drive by late Autumn Quarter.
The group's approach centered on a concise collection effort, considering the limited amount of time before a shipment date would be set. With the help of flyers and numerous access points around campus, the campaign quickly attracted donations, eventually filling 20 boxes by the end of its collection phase.
"It was daunting," Monteleone said. "But the University helped out a lot."
With stacks of heavy textbooks and other educational materials needing to be sorted, catalogued, and prepared for shipping to headquarters in Alabama, Monteleone and fellow organizers found help from the Regenstein Library, which has provided the group with much-needed storage space. After being sent to Alabama, the collection of boxes will then be shipped directly to Baghdad University through a specially contracted delivery carrier, due to various safety concerns.
Currently, the Books for Baghdad project is no longer accepting book donations, although monetary contributions are needed to pay for shipping charges. On this point, Monteleone addressed the challenges of high costs as a legitimate concern, noting, "The cost for shipping comes to $12 per box, and so the cost for 20 boxes is pretty high."
The group has turned to fellow students and the University community for support. "We've been thinking about contacting RSOs to each sponsor a box," Monteleone said, adding, "All kinds of RSO groups have been supportive, and the sponsorship approach makes everything so much more personal."
Despite these challenges, the project's organizers remain hopeful and committed to their cause. "We all want to see Iraq succeed," said Monteleone, who mentioned plans for starting a permanent group to help other countries facing similar book shortages for students. As for the immediate future, there are plans for a similar book drive event to be co-sponsored by the CIAPP some time this quarter, with details to be announced.
For more news and information on the Books for Baghdad project, visit www.booksforbaghdad.org.