BEIRUT: The National Library will be open to the public by the end of 2014, officials promised Friday, despite years of political obstruction, logistical setbacks and missed deadlines.
After nearly a decade of grassroots mobilization in support of the library, the process of repurposing the old Lebanese University Law School next to Sanayeh Park began in earnest in 2011 with a $25 million grant from Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. Then-Culture Minister Salim Wardy announced the library would open its doors by the end of 2011.
But for the past three years, the building has remained hidden away behind layers of scaffolding and security, with passersby left to wonder at the huge pit, several stories deep, being dug in the grounds next to the building.
The pit and other mysteries were addressed during a tour of the building Friday by caretaker Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun, who was accompanied by Elie Gebrayel, the chairman and CEO of the architecture firm Erga, as well as other members of the planning and construction team, the library committee and journalists.
The massive hole being dug will allow for four subterranean levels, three for stacks and one for parking, while the ground level will be replanted as a garden, Gebrayel told The Daily Star.
He went on to explain that the Interior Ministry still occupied part of the building, forcing construction teams to work around these offices, which delayed the work by several months. The restoration itself took more time than anticipated due to structural weaknesses and unforeseen complications in the Ottoman-era building.
“We want to have a sustainable library,” said Gebrayel. “We didn’t want to rush and not have all the facilities ready.”
The chief architect even went as far as to give an exact date – July 28, 2014 – for the completion of the renovation.
Layyoun acknowledged that “the founding stone has been placed more than once” without anything coming of it.
“The obstacle was, and remains, that the Interior Ministry insists on using parts of the building because the ministry is adjacent [to the stucture] and they don’t have enough room,” he said. Layyoun added that he had asked Cabinet to find a new location for the ministry, but an alternative solution had yet to be found.
Layyoun emphasized that the challenge posed by the ministry’s presence would not prevent the library from opening on time to the public. “This is a national library, and it will be a national library, all of it,” he insisted.
The National Library was founded in 1921 thanks to a donation by the Viscount Phillipe de Tarrazi, who bequeathed an impressive collection to the Lebanese state for the express purpose of creating such an institution. When the library came under threat during the Civil War, the collection was packed up and moved into storage, eventually making its way to the Port of Beirut where its remains until today awaiting transfer to the new facility.
The collection includes some 300,000 books, periodicals and old manuscripts, some of which date from before the library was closed, while others are more recent acquisitions. Like the National Museum, however, the contents of the National Library were never subjected to an inventory before the Civil War, making it impossible to know if any texts are missing.
A decision has yet to be taken as to whether the library will include banned books, Amal Mansour, the ministry’s media liaison, told The Daily Star. In the past, Lebanon’s censors have blacklisted books deemed “pornographic” or offensive to religion, such as Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code.”
Beirut’s municipal libraries are currently managed by the NGO Assabil, which also supports 30 partner libraries in towns and villages throughout Lebanon.