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by Kimberly Sweet

During the war in Bosnia, rare records of the past burned alongside modern scholarship. By finding copies of old manuscripts and collecting new works, librarians András Riedlmayer, AB’69, and Jeffrey Spurr, AB’71, are helping to preserve Bosnia’s past—and to restore its future.

On the night of August 25, 1992, early in the siege of Sarajevo, Serb forces shelled the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Barely ten percent of the library’s 1,500,000 volumes and virtually nothing from the special collections survived what many believe was the largest single act of book burning in modern history. That even a bit of the collection survived was only because of people like librarian Aida Buturovic. At 32 and newly engaged, she was on her way home from trying to save some of the rare books and manuscripts when she lost her life to a shellburst.

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would risk her life for books; perhaps it was for the same reason someone would want to destroy them. These were irreplaceable records of the nation’s past and present, housed in the Vijecnica, Sarajevo’s former city hall, a symbol of both the city and the nation. András Riedlmayer, AB’69, describes the National and University Library as Regenstein Library folded into the Library of Congress.

“These books and buildings give meaning to people’s lives,” explains Riedlmayer, bibliographer in Islamic art and architecture at Harvard University’s Fine Arts Library. “A work of art or a library is something that we expect will outlive us; it’s the way we communicate across the generations. When that is cut short, it is something of truly global significance.”

Fellow Harvard librarian, Jeffrey Spurr, AB’71, cataloger for Islamic art at the Fine Arts Library, shares Riedlmayer’s outrage: “This sort of wanton disregard for humanity, for history, for people, can result in the destruction in a trice of what had involved the imagination, labor, and money of centuries.”

The two decided to act on their outrage. What started as an awareness-raising campaign has turned, six years later, into a multidimensional effort with two major fronts designed to help Bosnia’s research and educational institutions. One is the Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project, which seeks to restore the Islamic manuscript collection of Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute—bombed in May 1992—by tracking down copies that foreign scholars made of the original documents. The second undertaking, the Bosnia Library Project, aims to replace the holdings of the National and University Library and other Bosnian research libraries by providing scholarly books and journals from the U.S.

They’ve had some real success, with 21 scholarly presses, including the University of Chicago Press, and the Harvard University libraries pledging substantial donations. Still, the going is slow. Although about 30,000 volumes from academic presses and libraries and private donors have been sent so far—with the U of C contribution scheduled to ship this fall—funding for storage and shipping is hard to find, especially as international interest in Bosnia has waned. Because of the lack of funds, the Bosnia Library Project hasn’t been able to collect all of its book pledges and has had to stop asking for more. The Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project has located 500 copies from a collection that once numbered more than 200,000. Well aware that reconstructing the collections will probably take decades, Spurr and Riedlmayer intend to persist, working alongside other academics and librarians from around the world who’ve organized their own projects to help Bosnia.

“As a librarian, as somebody who values the life of the mind, I have nothing I can do except what I’ve been trained in,” says Riedlmayer. “Whenever we succeed—like getting a few hundred copies of manuscripts that are now ashes—it feels like a victory.”

The two men came to their shared passion for Bosnia and books by different routes—in fact, although both had lived in Pierce Hall’s Henderson House one year, they didn’t know each other until arriving at Harvard. Riedlmayer, 50, born in Hungary, came to Chicago with his family in 1961. At the U of C, he studied the history of the Ottoman Empire, which once encompassed Hungary and Bosnia. He received a master’s degree in Near Eastern studies at Princeton before spending almost four years in Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship. After settling in the Boston area, he earned a master’s in library science from Simmons College, and has been in his current position since 1985. Spurr, also 50, came to the U of C from California to study archaeology and art of the ancient Near East but eventually decided to pursue cultural anthropology. He traveled in the Middle East after graduation, worked at the U of C Press for three years, then, after a stint as a U of C grad student in anthropology, moved to Cambridge and took a job at the anthropology library before accepting his current position in 1983.

Both men follow international events, and they watched, read, and listened with horror as the war in Bosnia escalated, discussing it on a daily basis. Spurr wrote numerous letters urging U.S. and U.N. intervention to President Clinton, National Public Radio, the French embassy, and other leaders. After the burning of the National and University Library, Riedlmayer encouraged professional organizations to at least speak out, if not offer direct assistance, but got little response.

“It’s an institutional culture that pervades both academic organizations and American culture in general, this false evenhandedness,” claims Riedlmayer. “Every dispute is seen as having two sides that can be cut down the middle. There’s nothing more pernicious than this, that you have a situation where you have people engaged in the kinds of things that you claim to value—the preservation of culture and education—and you walk away from them because you don’t want to get involved.”

Wanting to convince a larger audience of the gravity of the war in Bosnia, the two joined Harvard historian Cemal Kafadar and MIT researcher Irvin Schick in getting nearly 300 scholars from around the world to sign a letter condemning “the systematic destruction of Bosnia’s cultural heritage.” Accompanied by a photo of the burning library, it ran as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times in March 1993 and in the New York Review of Books four months later.

The ad garnered a lot of attention, and Riedlmayer began to be invited to speak and write about cultural property in Bosnia. Following the first of some 70 speeches he’s given, York University assistant professor Amila Buturovic—sister of the slain Aida Buturovic and a former researcher at Sarajevo’s Oriental Institute—approached him. Together with Schick, they launched the Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project ( in 1994.

The manuscript project’s primary aim is to restore as much as possible of the Oriental Institute’s one-of-a-kind collection, which included more than 5,200 bound manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, and Serbo-Croat-Bosnian, plus more than 200,000 Ottoman-era documents. The 500 photocopies, microfilm pages, and photographs located so far represent more than two dozen works in whole or in part. A New Hampshire firm has volunteered to put the materials on CD-ROM; Riedlmayer will take them to Sarajevo in November. The project also intends to build the Oriental Institute’s and the National and University Library’s holdings in Bosniaca. To that end, Riedlmayer is working with a private foundation on purchasing copies from the Ottoman microforms project of the University of Chicago Library’s Middle East Documentation Center.

Restocking the National and University Library shelves had to wait until after the war’s end, as shipping books to Bosnia was impossible. In the meantime, Enes Kujundzic, AM’73, began laying the groundwork. Kujundzic, the director of the National and University Library, came to the United States in late 1994 seeking help in rebuilding the library. Spurr and Riedlmayer arranged for Kujundzic to stay at Spurr’s home, aka “Hotel Bosna,” to consult with colleagues, and to speak at the Boston Public Library. They also introduced him to Tania Vitvitsky, project director of the Sabre Foundation, a Cambridge nonprofit organization that sends books and other educational materials to Eastern Europe, the countries of the former Soviet Union, and developing regions.

Working with an experienced organization like Sabre ensured that donated books would be properly stored and shipped. Typically, Sabre receives donations from commercial publishers of textbooks and professional books, asking its nonprofit partner organizations in each foreign country to choose what they need from Sabre’s inventory. Partners usually receive one to three 40-foot or 20-foot containers per year. Each partner is responsible for identifying needy institutions within its country and distributing the books to them.

In this case, besides sending offerings from commercial publishers, Vitvitsky agreed to work with Riedlmayer and Spurr to solicit donations from publishers and libraries at research institutions, the source of many of their desired materials. Spurr and Riedlmayer began at Harvard, asking its libraries for duplicate materials and its press for a copy of every single book in stock. William Lindsay, chief financial officer of the Harvard University Press, offered two copies of every book and then made a plea to the board of the American Association of University Presses. He wrote to the chief financial officers of other university presses, while Spurr wrote to library and press directors. Of the 21 presses that have agreed to make a donation, five, including the University of Chicago Press, offered two copies of all their books still in print.

“This is unprecedented, because most of the academic presses, unlike our commercial donors, have no tax incentive to donate,” says Vitvitsky. “We’re thrilled to be able to do this. If we can continue this project and get additional presses involved, that library will have one of the best holdings of primarily American academic titles in that part of the world.” (Most central Europeans, she notes, either read English or are learning to do so.)

The U of C Press is donating about 11,000 books, both paper and cloth, worth up to a quarter of a million dollars, according to Don Collins, the press’s chief financial officer. The U of C’s upcoming shipment will be the fourth shipment that Sabre has sent to Bosnia since the December 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war. The books—approximately 22 tons’ worth—will be packed in cartons, stacked on pallets, and shrink-wrapped before being placed into a 20-foot sea container provided by Sabre. After four to six weeks at sea, the shipment will arrive at the new temporary quarters shared by the National and University Library and the Oriental Institute—ironically, the Marshal Tito military barracks, named for the former Communist leader of Yugoslavia.

It takes about $20,000 to prepare and send such a shipment, and therein lies the rub. Earlier this year the cost prohibited Sabre from accepting more books for Bosnia, but Vitvitsky says they’re starting slowly to resume as more money trickles into Sabre’s coffers. Spurr and Riedlmayer have been taking a crash course in fund raising as they try to help out.

“There’s definitely a personal commitment beyond what I’ve typically seen, no question about it,” Vitvitsky comments. “We do depend a lot on very single-minded individuals with a particular interest. They’re not unique in that respect. But the amount of time they spend on this, and the continuing work—it’s really been sustained.”

Riedlmayer, who has testified at a congressional hearing on genocide in Bosnia, recently assembled a packet of witness statements, videos, and photographs to send to the prosecutor’s office of the international war crimes tribunal at the Hague. And Spurr, who is coordinating the Harvard libraries’ donations, is asking American learned societies to donate subscriptions to scholarly journals and has secured funding and a consultant’s help in automating the National and University Library.

Neither sees an end to their efforts in sight. “This has become part of my life, as the people that I’ve been involved with in it have become part of my life. I don’t see myself turning my back on that,” Spurr says. “There is an immense amount of work that remains to be done in Bosnia, and that is not going to stop.”

Riedlmayer agrees, adding that the state of the universities and libraries in Bosnia should be very much a U.S. concern: “America is deeply involved in the place, and it has a real stake in long-term stability, quite aside from any motives of human kindness. What caused the war was very much fed by ignorance. The one way you undermine hatred is through knowledge.”

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