The Cradle of Civilization to the Cradle of Democracy: American Corners and CDI Bring Iraqi Visitors to Library Company of Philadelphia

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Maria Johansson, for GPA -- In 1731, Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, now the oldest cultural institution in the country. Along with a group of friends, Franklin purchased a number of books that each contributing member had access to with a yearly fee of ten shillings. The working class people of Philadelphia who strived to climb their way up the social ladder flocked to this company and discussions surrounding politics, science and culture were common elements of their visits.

Given this history, it is not strange that “American Corners: Partners in Public Diplomacy, a Project for Iraq” also flocked to this almost 300 year old institution, now converted into an independent research library with a primary focus on pre-1900 materials of American history.

American Corners is a part of the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program and is arranged by the Meridian International Center. In Philadelphia, the visit was put together in collaboration with Citizen Diplomacy International. The Library Company was one of four stops in Philadelphia for this group of six Iraqis.

In addition to providing an excellent opportunity for teaching the visiting group about American history and heritage, one of American Corners’ main goals, this trip also displayed a dedication to the written word and the availability of information that helped spread democracy across the nation.Many of the visitors were librarians or teachers and spoke about how much of Iraqi history has been pillaged or destroyed during the battles that have ravaged the region. “These people come from a war torn part of the world and I think that the Library Company was a bit of an oasis to them,” said Rich Newman, the company’s newly instated director.

The number of books and other items of historical importance that must have perished during these times is unfathomable. This is especially so in the light of Iraq’s history, as Mesopotamia, considered by many the origin of modern society, was located there.

During the tour to the Library Company, the visitors were shown a number of historical artifacts and books. For instance, an early Qur’an and an old, handwritten Arabic short text. The visitors could read it without problem and what came out sounded more like a song than the short text it appeared to be.

It so happens that Benjamin Franklin’s secretary James Logan had taught himself a number of languages including Arabic and sent for books in all these languages from far and wide. As such, in addition to giving the visitors an insight into American culture and American history, the company was also able to share some common ground with them in the appreciation of history and language.

“There is nobody who comes in here and doesn’t get excited by all of these old books,” said Molly Roth, development director of the company.

Philadelphia’s participation in the American Corners Project certainly offers the program a great window into American history. Not only is Philadelphia the birthplace of the American democracy, but to this day it has been able to preserve much of its historical presence and architecture while simultaneously moving forward into the digital era.

Although this was not the first time that American Corners have come to Philadelphia (in 2013 a delegation from Uzbekistan came to visit) it was an important step in keeping Philadelphia on the map as an integral city of the United States and the world.

For more information about this visit, visit the Library Company's blog.

Photo courtesy of the Library Company.