The National Library of Lebanon acts as a cultural refuge in these difficult times
Eighteen months after the 2020 Beirut port explosion, which left thousands of buildings in ruins, the National Library of Lebanon has reopened, following the restoration of the complex of Ottoman buildings in which it resides.
Marked by an inauguration ceremony last week attended by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Minister of Culture Mohammad Mortada, a commemorative plaque in the lobby of the library was unveiled to celebrate what is hoped to be the last time the space will have to “reopen”.
“We are here again today to testify and confirm that Beirut was and will remain the mother of poetry and a city that does not despair,” Mikati said during the ceremony. “Despite all the political, economic and social challenges and concerns that surround us, literature and culture will have their place in the heart of this capital, as a living witness that Beirut will not die, and if it is ever destroyed in future other circumstances, it will rise again to remain the beacon of the East.
“The port explosion on August 4, 2020 left drama and pain that has yet to heal, [and will not] before the full truth about what happened is known,” he said. “The National Library, where we meet today after the completion of its restoration works, was and will remain an oasis of hope that brings Lebanese people together and is one of the monuments of culture, thought and Science.”
Windows and interior fittings were ripped open during the explosion, and most electronic equipment had to be replaced. The work was funded by Qatar and the Aliph Foundation, which protects heritage in conflict zones around the world.
“Fortunately, the collection was saved by its prompt removal and transfer to lower storage, in accordance with the library’s preventative preservation plan in the event of a catastrophic event,” Mortada said. The National. “The library has an incredible management team of 22 people who went above and beyond to extract the books from the rubble and were able to clean them up and store them safely until the library was ready again.”
Located in Beirut’s Sanayeh district, the library’s current home – a large Ottoman-era complex built between 1905 and 1907 during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II – was not the first.
The institution began as the personal collection of the writer and scholar Viscount Philippe de Tarrazi, from his residence in 1919. On his recommendation, the government founded the Great Library of Beirut in 1922, located in the Prussian School of Deaconesses in downtown Beirut, on which he donated his entire collection and began traveling to collect more books.
“Greater Lebanon was one year old when [Tarrazi] donated his rare collection to the library, which contained more than 20,000 books and about 3,000 manuscripts, thus forming the foundation of the National Library,” says Mortada. “It is the first official institution built with pure Lebanese hands, unlike many national institutions that were established by the French during the Mandate period.
“The knowledge content of this library has increased year by year. Beirut at the time, until recently, was the printing press of the Orient and one of the few open to all cultures, old and new, and a place of debate, which led to a place of free expression which produced hundreds of publishing houses, thousands of books, theaters and exhibitions, a modernist literary movement, poetry and other fine arts; universities, forums, media and press,” he says. “The National Library grew rich from the effects of all this, until its shelves were filled with innovations from all.”
By 1937 the library had moved into what is now the parliament building in Nijmeh Square, where it flourished until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. In 1979 it closed, having lost more than a Thousand Battle-Rare Manuscripts. and the building becomes uninhabitable.
It was not until 2005 that efforts to revive the library resumed. Qatar has donated $25 million to oversee the restoration of Sanayeh’s current premises. Restoration work on the collection’s 300,000 publications has begun – a process that took nearly two decades.
In December 2018, the library was officially reopened, but closed shortly after for maintenance which was unable to start due to the country’s economic difficulties, followed by damage from the explosion.
While the library may be functional again – capable of having 300 people at a time – there are still many details to make it truly usable. Currently plans for a library card have not been finalized and the country’s power shortages mean there will be limited facilities at times.
“The library is open now, but it won’t be able to play its full role until the power issues are resolved – likely some combination of public power, generators and hopefully renewable energy like panels solar,” says Mortada. “These things we have to take day by day until we can work these things out. For now, the library will be open every day, as long as there is power, otherwise computers to search for books etc. will not work.
The deposit law created in 1924 by General Weygand means that any book published in Lebanon would also give a copy to the library. Due to approximately 40 years of closure in total, the library will likely have gaps in its collection to fill. Mikati also called for the addition of the National Archives for preservation and access by scholars or researchers.
“We are working to consolidate the role of the Ministry of Culture in the protection of this history and in its active transmission to future generations,” says Mortada.
“[We seek] encourage in-kind exchanges provided by libraries and various institutions, through partnership and cooperation, with an emphasis on supporting the knowledge economy, at a time when information has become the engine of globalization . We will implement the project to digitize the collection and its virtual publication to make it accessible to everyone.
“In difficult times, culture remains a common refuge for all peoples, not to make them forget their reality, but to guide them towards the intellectual rules and scientific mechanisms that can overcome it.”
Updated: February 14, 2022, 7:29 a.m.