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Should Americans Send Books to Iraq?

Foreign relations
By A.J. PACITTI  |  August 20, 2008

Is developed-nation guilt keeping you up nights? Sending books to Iraq to promote civic culture in Iraq might help you to sleep more soundly. But do small-scale efforts make more than a symbolic impact?

Christopher Hitchens, the British intellectual pundit, raised the issue when he published an article in Slate in June, asserting, “I do believe that many people wish they could do something positive and make a contribution, however small, to the effort to build democracy in Iraq.”

He provided his readers with the mailing address of the American University of Iraq, citing the institution’s emphasis on the establishment of an English-language library. Modeled after similar institutions in Cairo and Beirut, the university in Sulaymaniya, a northern city, is calling for social science, technical and engineering texts, specifically, Hitchens reported.
He went on to recount having received a “progress report” from Thomas Cushman, a Wellesley College sociology professor, who, with colleagues, sent 30 cartons of “first-rate” global affairs, history and literature texts to the university, a gesture that prefect Nathan Musselman lauded, sending word to Cushman that students were writing term papers in English and citing the donated material.

So what of the notion of individuals sending a package along?

Local librarians praise the concept of individual donations, but are still a bit skeptical about the impact.

“My opinion as a public librarian is that it would be very difficult to build a meaningful collection in this manner,” Beth Curran, head of reference services at the Providence Public Library on Empire Street, says via e-mail. Curran calls the effort a “wonderful project,” but cites how, for example, duplicates of some titles might be sent and nothing on other topics.

“It would need to be somewhat systematic,” says Stephen Thompson, a reference librarian at Brown University, speaking from experience in working with university book donations. “I guess I can’t say it’s a bad idea,” he adds. “It would probably have to be very well-organized.”

What about the cost? Sending a five-pound package to Iraq is estimated to cost $36, says one Providence postal employee, and a 10-pound package, $76.50. Additionally, such packages cannot exceed 78 inches in combined length and girth.

These donations matter, but can’t exist alone, said Tania Vitvitsky, executive director of the Sabre Foundation, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit that sends books and CD-ROMs to Arab and/or Muslim countries.

Vitvitsky says that since 2001, the organization has provided more than $19 million in materials. She says the Sabre Foundation works large-scale — it now works with presses for Harvard, Yale, and MIT to send thousands of individual titles to institutions in Iraq. As for individuals sending a few books themselves, she is encouraging.

“I think both should occur,” Vitvitsky says, noting that larger efforts don’t negate the value of smaller donations.

“It’s not an either or.”

All this said, here’s the mail address offered by Hitchens:

Nathan Musselman
The American University of Iraq — Sulaimani
Building No. 7, Street 10
Quarter 410
Ablakh Area
Sulaimani, Iraq

  Topics: This Just In , Libraries , Media , Christopher Hitchens ,  More more >
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