BEIRUT: The culmination of a 95-year endeavor to build a National Library in Lebanon, long delayed by conflict and numerous administrative challenges, is finally bearing fruit as the final phase of the project begins. Today, the Lebanese National Library stands in Sanayeh, at the site of the old Lebanese University’s Department of Law. Part of the Culture Ministry, the main building work was finished in 2008 and combines modern and traditional architecture. It now awaits the arrival of the large collections of books and manuscripts, many of which endured the long and damaging Civil War.
But the slow process of establishing the National Library began nearly a century ago, in 1921.
It all started when Lebanese bibliophile and philanthropist Viscount Philippe de Tarrazi donated a large personal collection to the “Prussian Deaconesses” school to create what he called the Great Library of Beirut. By the end of that same year, the new institution gained recognition from the state. By 1940, with de Tarrazi’s collection rapidly growing through his travels, the library housed an estimated 200,000 printed documents and manuscripts, as well as an additional archive collection.
However, with the onset of the Civil War in 1975, the library was badly damaged, threatening the collections. For safety, the documents were first relocated from the turbulent area of Downtown Beirut to a safer storage in UNESCO. However, the new location was only marginally better than the previous. Many documents became infested with insects and damaged by the humidity of the storehouse.
A decade later, after the Ministry of Culture and Higher Education was given authority to run the National Library, it was assigned a new location in Sin al-Fil. The collections were finally being preserved in a less humid and less harmful location. However, it remained closed to the public, a library in name only.
In 1999, the culture minister drew up an ambitious project to rehabilitate the National Library. The aim was to properly store the collections and keep them safe, to restore old documents, replace missing volumes and add new works, and to train a team of archivists and librarians to be responsible for the National Library.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the rehabilitation project was officially launched, and work took the next three years at today’s permanent location in Sanayeh. While the work was being done the collections were housed at the Free Zone of the Port of Beirut, where a team was appointed to look after them.
Today’s collection is diverse in subject and origin, including everything from manuscripts, paintings, government publications, maps, plans, postcards, music scores, posters, books, newspapers and some modern electronic documents.
The library’s priority is to add any work published in the country to the collection as well as documents about Lebanon, by Lebanese authors or government documents from the Lebanese state. The mandate has also expanded to a regional level to add works with a wider appeal to a Middle Eastern audience.
By 2006, the library looked almost set to reopen. With the rehabilitation project coming to an end the government launched and funded a revival project to organize the collection, ready it for opening and add to the existing body of work. However, work was delayed by the 2006 Israeli war that wrought significant damage nationwide.
Following the war, the government and a number of international donors pledged funds to finish the project. In 2010, Qatar financed an architectural project to further develop the National Library in Sanayeh with a plan to open the doors to the public by 2014.
According to Culture Minister Raymond Areiji, although this first phase of construction has come to an end, the second phase is still pending. It includes repair work to the grounds of the newly built library, furnishing and installing necessary equipment, as well as putting in place technical necessities for smooth running.
“In the period between 2015 and 2016, we were working on the preparation of the implementation decrees of public institutions attached to the Ministry of Culture, including the Lebanese National Library,” the minister told The Daily Star. He went on to explain that the decrees to regulate the library, assign the board of directors, and set out the mandate were completed around two months ago.
If all goes well, the National Library should soon be able to open to the public so that all can peruse the literary history of Lebanon. No date has been set for the opening.