Librarianship in Lebanon, Country Report
By Cendrella Habre
The Arab World consists of 22 member states with a combined population of 357 million people stretching over 13,500,000 square km between North Africa and Western Asia. While each country is distinct in its own fashion, they share commonalities such as the Arab language which forms the unifying feature of the Arab World.
The Arab World, having a long and rich history, varies in population, territory size, natural resources, political and educational systems. But all are deemed developing countries, and the basic technological and information requirements in most of them are significantly under-developed. Even in the most economically developed countries in the region, oil-rich Gulf countries for example, information services (including libraries) exist primarily for the elite.
In this article I shall address the conditions of the libraries and the different information services available
in my country Lebanon.
The Republic of Lebanon is a narrow mountainous country of 10,452 square km situated on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Bordered on the north and east by Syria and on the south by Israel, it has a history of conflict, unrest, war and turmoil. The population is estimated to be around 4 million and Beirut is the capital. Although Arabic is the national language, English and French are widespread languages used exclusively in all schools, universities and colleges, government agencies and businesses.
Lebanon is considered the “educational hub” of the Middle East because it hosts the largest number of schools and universities when compared to the population. We have more than 41 private universities and colleges, one National University (offering free education) with more than 62 branches spread throughout the country and more than 75,000 enrolled students, and thousands of private and public schools. While private education is well structured, I have to admit that public schooling is largely synonymous with poor quality education for 2 main reasons: 1) the civil war which broke out in 1975 and lasted more than 15 years, and 2) the government which for decades didn’t prioritise this sector in its plans. This situation has the same implications on the state of libraries too.
Almost every private university/college has a library ranging from satisfactory to excellent services. The National University, with scattered branches everywhere in the country, suffers from poor quality libraries due to lack of financial support, duplication in collections, shortage in professional staff, weak infrastructure and minimum governmental support. The aforementioned conditions also apply on public libraries which amount to only 140 establishments. School libraries, on the other hand, are one room libraries and few are adequate libraries. They add up to 200 out of the thousands available schools. This is mainly caused by one major flaw in the educational and cultural life in Lebanon which is the lack of the reading habit. The majority of graduating students from schools are enrolled in universities without any library encounter whatsoever.
The National Library is an entirely different story.
It was founded in 1921, with a donation from Viscount Philippe de Tarazi of twenty thousand books, many rare manuscripts, and the first issues of national newspapers. De Tarazi's instructions were that his donation should form "the core of what should become the Great Library of Beyrouth." It was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education in 1922. It moved to the Lebanese Parliament building in 1937.
The Lebanese government decreed in 1924 that a copy of every book printed in Lebanon must be submitted, and also provided the library with a staff of eight clerks. A formal copyright deposit law was enacted in 1949 and amended in 1959, but it was never enforced. The government also failed to provide the library with qualified librarians, or to clearly define its objectives.
Ever since the civil war in 1975, the Library has been subject to sabotage and looting. The remnants of its staff, as well as that of Arab and world book collections and periodicals were dispersed, knowing that there are around 150 thousand documents and 3000 manuscripts remaining today. In 1999, the Ministry of Culture with the support of the Qatari government launched a project to revive the library and restore the ancient collections and documents. During the past two years, an inventory of 115 thousand books was conducted, where they were cleaned and restored. Today, they are being classified and indexed. Hopefully in the near future, they will be moved to their new headquarters in an antique building, previously occupied by the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Law in Beirut.
Despite all this, one will find that the libraries of some of the private universities are comparable to those in the United States and Europe. To name some, the American University of Beirut (founded in 1866), the French Saint Joseph University (founded in 1875), the Lebanese American University (founded in 1924), the Beirut Arab University (founded in 1960), the Holy Spirit of Kaslik (founded in 1961), Notre Dame University (founded in 1987), University of Balamand (founded in 1988), etc.
The libraries of the above-mentioned private universities are playing a key role in the country’s cultural and economic development. In addition, they have assumed the role of public libraries because they served the Lebanese community at large and any foreign researcher interested in Middle Eastern studies and related subjects. Undoubtedly, the civil war has negatively impacted their potential development. Nevertheless, after the war ended, they were capable of quickly renovating their services, collections, and technological infrastructure and kept pace with all innovations implemented in the Modern World. For instance, 3 consortia were established among them; 2 are local, namely LALC (Lebanese Academic Library Consortium) for sharing costs of electronic resources fees, LIDS (Lebanese Interlibrary Loan and Document Delivery Service consortium) for sharing resources (ILL/DDS), and one is international having a broader perspective, namely AMICAL (American International Consortium of Academic Libraries). Furthermore, all these academic libraries are members of OCLC cooperative.
Besides, Lebanon has several universities and colleges which offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in Library and Information Science, such as the Lebanese University, the Beirut Arab University and the University of Balamand.
To conclude, I would like to say few words about the Lebanese Library Association which was founded in 1960. While it does not have the same status of the American Library Association, the Association played a significant role in several areas such as: 1) professional development of librarians, para-professionals and fresh graduates by conducting training sessions, workshops, seminars and national and regional conferences; 2) reshaping the Library and Information Science program at the Lebanese University; and, 3) conferring with the Ministry of Culture to reestablish the National Library.
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