It held records from the Ottoman Empire, handwritten accounts of the Iran-Iraq war, and microfiche copies of Arabic newspapers going back to the early 1900s.
But many of the records are now lost forever -- destroyed in the fires and looting that beset Baghdad after coalition forces entered the Iraqi capital 15 months ago.
"We lost about 60 percent of our state records and documents -- they were either burned or damaged by water. [The lost documents belonged] to all the ministries, all departments of the state from the late 19th century up to Saddam's period. As concerns books, I think we lost some 25 percent of them, mostly rare books, the most valuable books," Saad Iskander, director-general of the library and archives, said.
He said a big part of Iraqi culture was wiped out in just the first few days of the occupation of U.S.-led forces. Some of the lost books were several hundred years old, including a 16th-century work by the ancient physician and philosopher Ibn Sina, or Avicena.
Iskander said the majority of the rare books were not destroyed, but stolen, and are now being sold illicitly in markets in Iraq and neighboring countries. Most of the archives' records, maps, and photographs are gone as well. Some have been damaged and cannot be restored.
But Iskander said there is hope that alternative records of other documents remain. Librarians are looking for microfilm records, and checking to see if copies of documents may be found in archives in Britain. But even such discoveries would be small successes in the face of the massive damage the library and archives have undergone. To some degree, Iskander said, an important part of Iraqi history is gone forever.
The National Library last week opened its doors for the first time since the beginning of the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. Iskander said the building suffered not only destruction at the hands of looters, but years of neglect under a regime that attached little importance to culture and books.
"Saddam and his government didn't pay attention to culture. The [former] minister of culture, Muhammad Yussef Hamadi, called this place the cemetery of books. He hated this place. Just imagine, the minister of culture hates the most important cultural institution in the country," Iskander said. His mission now, he said, is to correct the mistakes of the past and to bring a kind of order to a library that still holds nearly a million books.
One of the first priorities is to purge the shelves of the hundreds of editions of works by Saddam Hussein and other Ba'ath Party officials. The director-general said he will keep several copies of the works, but added, "There is no reason to have 20 or more copies of a book which nobody reads."
Iskander said the library has no money to buy new books. All money available has gone toward the restoration of the building, and toward efforts to preserve what is still left on the shelves.
Mazin Ibrahim Ismail is the supervisor of the National Archive. He said librarians are trying to preserve what is left of the records belonging to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. He said the documents contain files stretching from the British occupation until the 1970s.
The archive's employees show a lot of enthusiasm. But Ismail said there are few ways to save the documents from decay and parasites. "We lack the simplest means of keeping the documents,” he said. “We have only these shelves. The air-conditioning system was put in place only a month ago. Documents need a certain temperature and specific amount of light coming in. We lack all these things."