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Transcript from Four Questions with Laila Hussein Moustafa

Clir News No. 155

Jan-March 2024

Transcript of Four Questions with Laila Hussein Moustafa

Question One: Beyond the loss of books, you emphasize the cultural significance of libraries. Can you elaborate on how the destruction of these cultural repositories impacts the identity and collective memory of affected communities during times of conflict? (slight pause before audio begins)

Laila Hussein Moustafa: Library always is very important for people. Uh, when they are seeking information about their background, about their history, about the land they are in, about even simple things like a recipe was done by two generation before us. We go to the library to seek this information, and this is why in time before people are not just trying to survive and to protect themselves and their families, they also try to protect their story. By protecting books in the library because books are really strengths, our roots, to the land that we are in and, uh, whatever in the library bring…whatever in the library, it shows our existence.

It’s the evidence of our existence and the message people received when war happened and they see their library destroyed or, um, books was looted, is that the invader is not just coming to displace us or kill us. It’s coming also to wipe our history, to destroy this history and to make it vanished. And this is really a very strong message, and this is why it’s very, very important for people during war not to just survive, but also to have their history and roots survive with them by protecting the library and trying to rescue books and materials inside the library.

Question Two: Your piece touches on strategies to safeguard knowledge in libraries during conflict. Considering the cultural heritage at stake, how can these preservation efforts contribute to maintaining a sense of identity and continuity within communities faced with such devastation?

Laila Hussein Moustafa: People in every war that I was reading about, it was a line or a sentence saying that during war, even people are trying to run away to escape physically, like to protect themselves physically, where they lose their house or they run away from their house to protect themselves. They also have the willing of <?>, the museum is looted or library is burned. Or even before the conf, before the, the damage happened to the culture sites, including library and archives. They run to these places, actually, to try to save whatever they can. And we saw this case on Iraq when the looting started in the in the National Library and Museum and the archives, those who moved the materials from the library were actually the local, it wasn’t the librarians. Not to say that the librarians cannot do this, but those who lives around and they have also knowledge of what’s inside the value, what’s inside.

They know this is something they have to save because this is part of their heritage. This is part of their history in this, in this library or museum. So we heard this in Iraq, and also we heard this during World War II. We read about this in Timbuktu when the civil war also started, people run to the national or to the run to the library of where the manuscript are storage. And they moved it outside of the city before the attackers comes, because the attackers come. Because they understand that the conflict history of the conflicts through the wars is always attacking people and whatever, whatever record can say, these people exist. And people understand this from stories they heard from readings. So protecting this, their stories is actually part of surviving. And their stories is always in the library, because there is history books. There is things to show the record of these people exist. And this is why it’s very important. In, in every wars that I read about how library was protected, it was protected by the local, it was protected by the local, because the local knows what’s…they are nearby actually. It’s not just,

They know they are nearby. And history taught all of us that when war comes or conflict, library and archives and museum are a target. So the local always…they are the first group they run to save and protect the materials inside the library. And we saw this in World War II that most of the collection of the Jewish in Germany and Poland were saved by the local. By…and also we saw this in Bosnia and Serbia war in the nineties. We saw also the damage of the Iraq national and museum library. It’s in many wars. And I wrote about this and I was looking always how some of these books was protected. And I find that mostly by people live nearby, by the local who get the sense of we have to go and help.

And we saw this clearly actually in Timbuktu, in Mali when the Civil War was just shows the signs of civil war started in Mali. The local went to the, I don’t want to say public library because it’s not public library, private libraries. And they moved all the manuscript, the 18-19th century manuscript outside of Timbuktu. And this was done by people who has the knowledge of what’s inside the libraries. And they know the country very well. They know where they can go and hide this materials. And part of people doing this, actually it just because, you know, if they, it’s books carry their history. Books, has stories of those people and their generation before them and reading about them will go through books and archives and the newspapers that the archives collected. And this is why people, they try to survive through reading about their history and through protecting their history through books and libraries.

Question Three: The examples you provided highlight international collaborative efforts to protect cultural heritage. Could you discuss how these collective initiatives not only preserve knowledge but also contribute to rebuilding the fabric of society and cultural resilience in conflict-ridden regions?

Laila Hussein Moustafa: International organization, including UNESCO Blue Shield. They try to help actually, local national library, museum, and archives that they suffer from war. Sometimes they help them actually during the war. Like Blue Shield is like the organization that they can go and help during war time if they are allowed. They have professional people who knows how to help during war and also after war time or conflict, local conflict. And the, what they do is try to work with the local in moving materials from the war zone or a conflict zone to a more safer place because they are not familiar with the country. So they really have to have a collaboration with the local. And most of the time they succeed because the local really collaborative. And what they try to do is to help them protect their memories through…Lailaif it is from museum archives or national libraries or even private collection, and they send professional people to help the local and teach them how to preserve this materials.

While there is no electricity, there is no really safe place. There is no files, there is no preservation at all. But they give them the help that they can save their materials. And sometimes they actually, lately, particularly after the Iraq war, they start using technology to communicate with the local through Zoom, through any video, or to talk to them because you couldn’t, if they couldn’t get into the country or the conflict area. And they do this because they believe that part of people recovering and reconciliations is having their memory preserved. Because when the physical place is damaged and people die, they actually, they actually look for something to hold them together. And memory is one of the things can help people to get together and survive the traumas that they went through this. And UNESCO really had done great job around the world, particularly if you look the online world of the memory of the world that they created was…it’s like a repository, international repository was the, they keep a lot of collection from different countries accessible to anyone around the world. And I, I see that

Supporting this international organization by our experience, by our money, by our collaboration is very important because this is, it’s the only way to help people who are traumatized during time of war is to show them solidarity through saving their memory, saving their collections, saving their story. Even if they don’t have access to it physically in their countries, we can still help them to have access to it through online if we can protect it and help them to protect what they care about it.

Question Four: You mentioned the link between preserving diverse knowledge sources and the broader implications for artificial intelligence. How do you see the preservation of cultural knowledge, particularly from regions facing destruction, influencing the richness and inclusivity of our collective human history as it’s reflected in AI and technological advancements?

Laila Hussein Moustafa: When I wrote the article and I made the connection between artificial intelligence and cultural heritage, preserving cultural heritage, what I was trying to say is, artificial intelligence require data. So if you don’t give the technology data, it doesn’t really work. It’s not smart by nature, it’s smart by training and how you train the machine, you train the machine by data, it gives them the data that you wanted this machine to produce or work with it to give you knowledge. So when I, when I saw the war and I was thinking about this library, if it destroyed, burned, or the archive for the museum, that means we will not have access to this knowledge when we start heavily using artificial intelligent technology to retrieve knowledge because the data didn’t have, it is way to be stored in the machine and it’s not part of the big data.

Digitization became very important today because where we are going in the future. We are going to more machine production of knowledge, and we have to feed the machine with the knowledge that we have. Otherwise, it’ll be a gap on the future memory because some of this knowledge that we have was damaged. It wasn’t digitized and preserved. So preservation in itself, it’s not enough. Digitization became more important than ever because it’s a part of…it is part of the preservation. And my hope that we can collaborate more and more with the international organization and local organization like CLIR to preserve memory of the world, to preserve people heritage. Because we show solidarity not only by writing about those people who lost their land, who lost their lives, but also by preserving their memory. This is a type of solidarity, but also it’s a type of…so it is really a type of value, human knowledge by preserving this knowledge. And this is what I am hoping that, as a community of librarians, archivists, and culture, heritage scholars, we should work together.

We should encourage more digitization and preservations. So I leave all of us here in this part by encouraging all of us to share our knowledge, to share our resources, to share our training as a type of resources with the world of libraries and archive and museum around the world, and help people before war happening and help people during and after the war to preserve what they still have to collect, what they have lost, maybe from other libraries, to give them some ideas and experience of what happened in other war zone or conflict zone, that it might inspire them to recover their memory. Thank you.

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