twenty-five thousand books to Bosnia

Today, my late father’s books are on their way to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Most of that library’s collection was lost on August 25-26, 1992 when the Army of the Republika Srpska shelled the building. Several generous friends have helped my family and me to cover the shipping costs.

1992: Vedran Smailovic plays his cello in the destroyed National Library, Sarajevo.
Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

The books fill more than 1,000 60-pound boxes, for about 30 tons of weight (27 metric tons). We did our best to measure the linear feet this spring and estimated there are 25,000 volumes. Although I watched dad pick out books over many years, it is still kind of amazing that he purchased each one individually, thinking about its price, whether he already owned a copy, and what he thought of it. He bought the majority in Britain, so most are making their second transatlantic voyage.

The coverage is basically Western European cultural and intellectual history from 1500 to 1900, with some offshoots. Dad didn’t read all his books, but he only purchased what he could read, which means that the languages are Latin, French, Italian, and English, with just a few exceptions.

We didn’t send all his books to Bosnia. Since 2014, several hundred volumes have been on loan to Montpelier, James Madison’s house. They match editions that we know Madison owned. (His library was sold to meet the debts of his stepson.) I also kept about 2,000 volumes, books printed between 1500 and 1820 that I didn’t think would survive the travel well. They now line the walls of my office at Tufts–rising eleven feet on three sides, which is hard to capture in a photo.

We intend these books as a gift to the people of Sarajevo and Bosnia and as a commitment to the humane values that made the library a target for destruction in 1992.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.