Beirut’s public libraries quietly building a new generation of readers
By: Bassel Habbab
Published Friday, July 4, 2014
Situated past a firehouse and up two flights of cigarette-littered stairs, in a municipal building overlooking a cemetery in Bachoura, Beirut’s first municipal public library is turning 14 this year.
Mohammed, 12, was the only patron in the three hundred square meter Bachoura branch on a recent afternoon.
“My school isn’t that good,” said Mohammed, who has been coming to the library every day for the past nine months to read books and use the computers.
He brings his three younger siblings once a week, but said his friends would rather stay home and play.
Following the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the establishment of public libraries was low on the Beirut municipality’s list of priorities, according to Antoine Boulad, the president of Assabil’s Administrative Committee.
“It was a few years after the supposed peace,” Boulad recalled. “The big reconstruction was the theme of the period.”
In 1997, he and four friends proposed a public library to the municipality as the deliberative assembly of the French region Ile-de-France, which had been financially supporting the municipality, began lobbying it to build a library.
Assabil and the municipality settled on a deal to create 12 libraries across Beirut, mostly in existing municipal properties. Three have been built already, in Bachoura, Geitawi, and Monot, with a fourth expected in Tariq al-Jdideh in the next year.
Each library maintains a general collection, but the three branches also cater to their neighborhood’s interests. The Monot branch has a focus on the arts, while the Geitawi branch, located in a garden, offers some books focused on horticulture.
In an effort to increase the impact of its resources, Assabil also partners with 30 libraries in towns and villages across Lebanon, providing them with books, training, and expertise.
“[The Tariq al-Jdideh library] will be maybe the only cultural program of the municipality in this heavily-populated area,” said Boulad.
“Reading is for everyone”
In establishing public libraries across Beirut, Assabil was trying to fill a gap in services while promoting the notion that reading is for everyone, according to Boulad.
In 2013, Assabil received 31,000 visitors and lent out over 16,000 of its 44,000 books. While it represents the only source of books for some of its visitors, the NGO also strives to provide its members with access to culture and a community of readers.
“A public library should be very active,” Boulad said. “It doesn’t come only by putting books on shelves. You have to have strategies, a whole program for attracting a population without a tradition of public libraries.”
In order to draw new visitors and continue to serve current members, Assabil hosts regular writing workshops, computer classes, and cultural events. Although the number of visitors triples on days the Bachoura branch holds events, Choucair said the library still struggles to inform Beirutis of its existence, despite radio, television and print advertising.
“Nobody knows about it,” said Mario Tabit, 50. Tabit, who has spent his entire life in the Monot area, said he only discovered the library four years after it was built. He visits the branch everyday to read newspapers and use the Internet, and sometimes brings his daughter along.
All three branches have dedicated children’s sections, and a slight majority of the library’s visitors - 55 percent, according to Choucair - are children.
“The generation before never had public libraries,” said Choucair. “We didn’t have the chance to read, but we want our children to read.”
Children flock to the library to read and borrow books, attend activities, and use the Internet to check Facebook and play games.
“I let the kids play for half an hour,” said Choucair. “Most are refugees - at least they can learn how to use the computer.”
Refundable lifetime memberships cost 10,000 LL (US $6.66), but children who cannot afford the sum are allowed to enter for free.
Assabil also maintains a mobile library, the Kotobus, which currently caters to schools in Beirut’s suburbs.
“If people can’t come to the library, it will go to them,” said Boulad. Children can check books out and return them the next time the Kotobus visits, typically two to three weeks later.
Recently, Assabil has been making a concerted effort to make the collection accessible to Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers.
“We are trying to have many languages, to open on Sunday because foreign domestic workers have that day off,” said Boulad, adding that the libraries are now open on the first Sunday of each month, courtesy of a Lebanese bank’s charitable arm.
Striving for neutrality
As a private NGO in charge of a public library, Assabil is tasked with the unusual responsibility of privately curating a collection for public consumption.
“First, it’s a right of any person paying taxes to have free access to culture,” said Boulad. He also believes people have a right to a space where they can meet others coming from different socio-economic and religious backgrounds.
Assabil aims to provide that kind of space, according to Choucair.
“The aim is to be neutral. You have to give the people a certain place where they feel they can get information, not where they feel intimidated,” she said, pointing to the politically and religiously diverse Lebanese public.
In order to preserve the library’s accessibility to all, Assabil tries to include books from all perspectives on sensitive topics like the Lebanese civil war, according to Cosette Azzi, the Monnot branch librarian.
The libraries also only carry strictly informational books about religion, as opposed to titles aimed at converting readers, she added.
The balancing act further extends to the linguistic breakdown of the collection. A majority of Assabil’s books - 44 percent - are in French, while 36 percent are in Arabic and the remainder are in English.
Many patrons request more Arabic books, said Choucair, adding that the collection was more heavily francophone when the library first opened.
Public library, private management
“The concept of public right is very poor in Beirut,” said Boulad. “The dominant culture or thinking is private, not public.”
Although the municipality provides Assabil with spaces for libraries and partial funding, it doesn’t interfere in the NGO’s management. Assabil also relies on corporations, corporate foundations, and foreign countries and foundations to help cover its costs.
Unsurprisingly, the privately-financed model bears its own kinds of restrictions. Donors sometimes limit what languages or topics their money can be used for, according to Choucair.
While it is uncommon for an NGO to be operating a city’s public libraries, Assabil’s arrangement fits within Beirut’s trend towards private management and financing of public works. The recent and much-publicized renovation of Sanayeh Park, for example, was funded by the Azadea Foundation, the Beirut-based charitable arm of a fashion retailer. The Sanayeh project was part of the “Beirut is Amazing” campaign, launched by Beirut’s mayor two years ago with the aim of increasing private sector participation in the maintenance of public space.
The trend is a product of Lebanon’s environment, according to Mohammed Ayoub, the executive director of Nahnoo, a Beirut-based youth advocacy group.
“In Lebanon, there is no environment of the public library,” Ayoub told Al-Akhbar. “To change behavior you have to change the environment, and that’s the responsibility of the decision-makers.”
Ayoub pointed to the lack of public transportation and public spaces, along with the municipality’s poor communication, as factors contributing to the privatized environment in Beirut.
Boulad agrees with the need for environmental change. “You have to start somewhere,” he said. “If you don’t start, people will never learn how to behave in public spaces.”
Nada Houri, a recent university graduate and frequent volunteer, believes that all Lebanese citizens should have access to a library in their community. She views her volunteer work as a chance to help provide her society with intellectual resources.
It seems, for the moment, that the libraries are slowly turning the cultural tide. Twelve-year-old Mohammed, whose parents have never step foot inside the library, has read nearly all of the branch’s chemistry books.
“If I could change anything about the library, I would bring more books,” he said. “More chemistry books. I like how you can add two things together and get something new.”