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Review: Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson

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My Interest

In real life, I am a librarian in a college program for adult students. I’ve worked in a big variety of libraries– two agricultural research station libraries, several law firms, and a law school library, a public library, and a non-traditional librarian’s role working on a long-ago government database pre-Internet. My bachelor’s degree is in International Relations/Russian & East European Studies, so I’ve studied most of the hot spots in the world, albeit circa the early Reagan years. This book, therefore, just screamed to get my attention.

The Story

“We don’t ban any books….We believe that by excluding books we may not agree with we would just be helping to raise ignorance. If we want to sharpen the intellect of our generation and their understanding of the world, we need to let them think for themselves.”

[Chapter 4, audio version]

In Daraya, outside Damascus, the citizens endured life in a very hot war zone. Nerves cried out for peace, for escape, for solitude. The Syrian regime, like most governments to whom the word “regime” is applied, censored the media and made it very difficult for citizens to get their hands on any but the few books approved by that same regime. Over time a fearless little band of men, one only a young teenager, came together to beg, borrow, or recover from ruined or abandoned buildings, a sensational hidden library. Advertising was nil–word-of-mouth was the only way people could learn of it. The collection included everything from poetry to textbooks, to self-help, to novels. When Daraya was forcibly evacuated the library had to be abandoned. The “librarians” were not allowed to bring even one book. This did not stop them–they kept the faith in what they were doing–spreading knowledge to form a better country when the war ended.

Interspersed in the story of the library, we learn of the correspondent’s efforts to get stories out, to locate helpful resources, and to simply contact the outer world. I was shamed when one of the librarians using the equivalent of tinfoil on old tv rabbit ears to access a very weak wifi signal and find and win a grant in Belgium to help his library. Wow!

My Verdict

I loved that the value of the free exchange of ideas is alive and well in this hell-hole of a place. I love that religion did not separate them from the idea of providing alternative viewpoints. I admired the courage and compassion that these men showed in building this library. This would be an excellent book for middle school or high school classes as well as for general readers.

Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Seige by Mike Thomson

 

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