BEIRUT: The culture of reading has taken a nosedive in recent years throughout the world, and Lebanon is no exception in this regard. One simple and very valid reason for low readership here is the high cost of acquiring books. Other reasons are manifold, from the demands of working culture and the ease of using telecommunications to the lack of public libraries.
But hope is on the horizon, with plans for a national library, as well as a total of 60 libraries nationwide, connected to five main regional area libraries.
Former Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh initiated a partnership between municipalities and the ministry to develop a modern network of libraries, said Salameh's former assistant, professor Maud Stephane.
In 2001, a $700,000 deal was negotiated between the ministry and the Center for Reading and Cultural Activities (CLAC), an inter-governmental agency of the French Francophonie, to fund 14 libraries in remote villages, and two in Beirut's suburbs. The ministry made an unprecedented breakthrough by negotiating with CLAC for 55 percent of the books to be in Arabic and the rest in French.
Plans for a national library have been under way since 1999, but a temporary location was only decided upon in 2002.
The current plan is to convert and extend the Lebanese University faculty of law at Sanayeh in Beirut to hold 1.8 million volumes and accommodate 400 readers. The library will contain everything published in the country - around 2,000 titles a year - and about Lebanon and the Arab world, Stephane said.
There are currently 150,000 to 200,000 volumes of books and periodicals in storage which will need to be restored and rebound, she added.
The current developments and the restoration of volumes is being funded by a $1.5 million donation by the European Union, a significant part of the estimated $7 million cost of the national library. The rest was promised to the ministry by private donors and states.
There are only 45 public libraries nationwide, two in Beirut's suburbs and one in the capital itself. These libraries are provided with minimal government financial support, in many cases funded by municipalities and private organizations.
A non-governmental network, Assabil, is involved in the operation of 21 of the country's public libraries, including the one and only library in Beirut, in Bashoura, near Riad al-Solh.
The public municipal library of Beirut is in the same building as the local fire station, and is a mere 300 square meters in area. The library, established in 2001, contains 20,000 English, French and Arabic books. A reasonable amount for a small municipal library and the library's 600 registered users, but hardly adequate for a city of approximately 1.4 million people.
The low number of library users, between 100 and 200 a day, indicates two things: the existence of the library is not widely known, and reading is seemingly unimportant to many Beirutis. Counsellor John Darcy at the American Community School (ACS) said: "building libraries is one thing and making people go and read is another."
A reading culture is developed as much at home as at school. ACS student counsellor Marie Beaupre, said that children read when they see their parents reading. The correlation between children reading and their parents has been scientifically proven, but when parents work increasingly long hours, or more than one job, the culture of "tune in and zone out" has become an easier option than reading small print.
For families surviving on the minimum wage of $200, buying books, or even paying for transport to the library, is not the highest priority.
The onus would then seem to lie on schooling. However, as a librarian at the American University of Beirut (AUB) commented, "the younger generation wants sound bites - quick information and entertainment, not mulling over books."
Television and the internet have certainly had a detrimental effect on people picking up a book. Local culture is also a factor. In such a family orientated and social environment where the TV is more often on than not in the main living space, the AUB librarian said, "you just don't go into a corner and read a book."
ACS school psychologist Nathan Taylor concurs. "In this culture people are very verbally skilled, but less focus is placed on reading and writing. Reading impacts directly on your writing skills," he said. Taylor emphasized the importance of reading from a young age, particularly fiction, as "that form of expression gets the imagination going at a faster rate than a movie. It is active learning rather than diffuse learning."