Afghan history archive draws hundreds daily
KABUL - At the heart of Kabul University’s campus, a large information archive resides in the newly constructed Afghanistan Centre. The Centre, famous now for being the richest source of information on Afghanistan in the region, each day draws hundreds of Kabul University students, in addition to scholars and journalists seeking information about Afghanistan’s history.
The Centre was inaugurated for public use on 27 March 2013, but the archive has existed since its formation in 1989 in Pakistan by the Centre’s founder and current director, Nancy Hatch Dupree. Ms. Dupree came to Afghanistan in 1962, but later became involved with Garzandoi—the Afghan Tourist Organization—and started writing guidebooks.
She wrote books on several Afghan provinces, along with a guide to the country’s museums. She did a significant amount of travelling in the country, because, as she indicates, she would not write about anything she had not seen. During her travels, she met with Louis Dupree, a renowned archaeologist and scholar. Later, they married in Kabul.
“The two of us worked very closely together because he was an archaeologist and was always looking for caves where prehistoric people used to live; he was a very good photographer,” recalls Ms. Dupree. “It was a time when most Kharijis [foreigners] would not believe things we could do; we would set off in our Land Rover and would go anywhere, with no escort, no armoured cars, nothing.”
During Afghanistan’s 1970s conflict, the couple moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, and started working with Afghan refugees. This is where the idea of the Centre was first conceived.
“Actually, the idea of this Centre is not mine,” says Ms. Dupree. “Louis thought it would be valuable information for those who would go and work with Afghans after refugee repatriation, and thought that a central repository should be established to collect all of the reports and surveys of the nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations and the bilateral agencies.”
One nongovernmental org-anization, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, embraced the idea and in 1980 established the initial repository, called the Afghan Resource and Information Centre, in Peshawar. The books and other materials were later moved to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban and the establishment of the interim government.
In 2006, Ms. Dupree returned to Kabul with some 36,000 documents, but with no space to store or show them. Kabul University’s Chancellor at the time, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, provided a temporary space in the university’s main library. Soon, Ms. Dupree realized that the space would not be enough, especially given the number of documents Afghanistan’s government, along with national and international organizations, were sending to her.
She talked with the Minister of Higher Education at the time, Fayyaz Sharif, who agreed with the university to provide a space in the middle of the campus. Former President Hamid Karzai authorized development funds in 2007 for the construction of a new facility. The construction work took almost seven years.
The new building at Kabul University, the Afghanistan Centre, was inaugurated on 27 March 2013. Operating with funding from the government, with some contributions from foreign donors, the Centre personnel signed an agreement with the Ministry of Higher Education that it would operate independently inside the university campus.
Today, the Centre is stocked with a collection of more than 80,000 items related to Afghanistan’s modern history. The collection’s books and other documents, which are in Dari, Pashto, English and other languages, cover the Afghan civil war, the Taliban era and the recent period of international intervention.
The collection is fully catalogued, with its records now indexed in an online database to make it accessible online. More than 800,000 pages have been scanned, and some 4,000 volumes are accessible on the Centre’s website at afghandata.org, which is jointly maintained by the University of Arizona. For those coming to do research, the Centre provides a reading room along with 38 workstations connected to the Centre’s database.
To reach Afghans outside of Kabul, the Centre runs a programme designed to spread knowledge and encourage a culture of reading by making materials available through portable lending libraries.
“As part of our outreach component, we publish books, and now have 150 titles specifically written for new readers,” says Ms. Dupree. “These portable boxes hold 250 books and go into communities and belong to them. They decide where they put them; sometimes they put them in schools, sometimes in clinics and sometimes in mosques. The mullahs like these very much.”
Ms. Dupree says she believes that these books are helping those who have recently graduated from literacy classes. “I began to go and see some of the literacy courses for the army and police, and I said if you don’t give them something to read, they will lose what you have taught them,” she recalls.
Through its boxed library extension programme, the Centre has supplied nearly 250,000 books to more than 200 schools and community libraries across Afghanistan, and is planning to establish 40 new mobile libraries between 2014 and 2017, updating the more than 200 libraries with new materials.
In addition to its outreach programme, the Centre provides a facility for conferences, public events, debates and cultural activities. Ms. Dupree says she believes that it is important for Afghan’s young people to engage in debates. “I am delighted that the young Afghans during the past few years have learned to raise their voices,” says Ms. Dupree.
“In Afghan society, it is impolite to speak up in front of your father or other elders; but now young people have learned that they are a big power,” she says. “I want them to use their power not for individual things but for the country.”