Vol 34 (2014): Special issue: Human Rights and Oral History: Stories of survival, healing, redemption, and accountability

Libraries under siege in Croatia 1991-1995

Marica Šapro-Ficović
Librarian, Dubrovnik Public Library
Published July 7, 2014


During the Homeland War in Croatia, 1991-1995, numerous cities were attacked and their cultural institutions were damaged or even destroyed. Even under siege conditions and constant shelling, life in them somehow went on, and libraries were an important community resource and site of resistance. Despite difficult and often dangerous conditions, they remained open to the public and continued to provide services. This study presents an oral history of the work and the use of libraries in towns under siege during the Homeland War. Ten cities under siege throughout the country, involving 14 libraries, were included in the study: Dubrovnik, Šibenik, Zadar, Gospić, Karlovac, Sisak, Slavonski Brod, Osijek, Vinkovci and Vukovar. Fifty librarians and seventeen users from those cities, witnesses of that time, were interviewed and provided eye-witness accounts as well as their reflections about the events and the role of library services under siege. The qualitative methods of grounded theory were used for analysis of collected interviews. The notion of social capital was used in interpreting results and for general valuation of libraries. Results show that libraries were the only cultural institutions that were fully functioning in their communities at the time. Many dramatic instances illustrate the importance of culture and narrative specifically in the lives of ordinary people. Included are examples of soldiers who were carrying library books to battlefields, mothers who read compulsively after the loss of children, and librarians who behaved professionally and courageously under hazardous conditions. The number of users actually increased during the siege, as did the borrowing of books. Civilians took books to shelters and soldiers took books to the front. Libraries also were used for cultural events, such as exhibits, and meetings. This study contributes evidence about the social role and value of libraries, and suggests a larger role for culture and narrative in surviving atrocity. A discussion of the methodology with extensive examples and quotes from results are presented in the paper.