Lebanese NGO promotes culture of public libraries

Assabil is an NGO that promotes reading through the establishment, promotion and support of public libraries in Lebanon that are free and open to all.
Friday 14/12/2018
Culture for all. People gather at a public library operated by Assabil in the neighbourhood of Mannot in Beirut. (Assabil)
Culture for all. People gather at a public library operated by Assabil in the neighbourhood of Mannot in Beirut. (Assabil)

BEIRUT - Knowledge and culture should be accessible to all people regardless of social status, background and religious affiliations. With that principle in mind, a group of academics, teachers and librarians came together more than 20 years ago to introduce the public libraries to Lebanon.

In 1997, the group founded Assabil, an NGO that promotes reading through the establishment, promotion and support of public libraries in Lebanon that are free and open to all.

“At the time, libraries existed mainly in the universities. Lebanon had a national library only, where rare manuscripts and valuable books were kept, but one could not borrow any books,” said Assabil Vice-President Michelle Warde, one of the group’s founders.

She said it took two years to convince the Beirut municipality to offer a site to begin the project. With support and funding from Ile-de-France region, Lebanon’s first public library opened in 2001.

The choice of the poor and densely populated area of Bachoura for the first public library was not random. “The neighbourhood needed such a place badly. We did a study beforehand and found out that there were 23 public schools in the area that did not have a library,” Warde said.

“Assabil created a momentum of public libraries in the country. Public libraries play an important role in the development of individuals and free and unlimited access to information is an essential prerequisite for the development of a well-informed and tolerant society,” she added.

Assabil operates three municipal public libraries in Beirut and has established a network of libraries across Lebanon that it supports with books, cultural activities, training and advice.

The NGO also has a mobile library — the Kotobus — that is taken regularly to 11 public schools and 12 child-care centres along the Mediterranean coast, giving children, including Palestinian and Syrian refugees, in disadvantaged communities a chance to take part in activities to promote reading, cultural performances and to benefit from regular book loan services.

Assabil and the Municipality of Beirut plan to set up an additional nine libraries throughout the city.

Some 45,000 books covering various subjects are available to the public to borrow, said Assabil Executive Director Ali Sabbagh.

“We try to avoid religious and political books and the very specialised publications that are usually available in the libraries of the universities’ faculties. One can borrow up to seven books for a period of two weeks after subscribing in the library,” Sabbagh said, adding that the number of visitors to the three libraries is estimated at no less than 30,000 annually, with 20,000 borrowings made.

While Beirut Municipality provides the premise and covers operating costs of the three public libraries, Assabil relies on donations to fund various cultural activities and to buy books.

Like other cultural organisations, Assabil has reported a drop in funding in recent years due to the Syrian crisis, Sabbagh said. “International and local donors have shifted their priorities, reducing support to cultural activities. Consequently, we have suffered as well as the Lebanese and the people at large living in this country and benefiting from our services regardless of their nationality,” he said.

In the age of the internet and online information, Assabil hopes to turn its centres into e-libraries where patrons can borrow a computer tablet or bring his or her own device and download books of their choice, said Ziad Abou Alwan, a former Assabil president and administrative committee member.

“The philosophy of public libraries has changed. It is no longer the quiet place where one can sit and read but it has become more of a community centre where cultural activities are offered,” Abou Alwan said. “Such activities would attract people to the public library and introduce that habit in them. They are in proximity of books which they can read and borrow.”

Among the cultural activities offered by Assabil are storytelling for children, oriental music nights, jazz and blues nights, book signings and a cine club showing specific documentaries and films that are debated afterward.

“We have up to 150 free cultural events per year, in addition to an annual cultural festival, including poetry, music concerts, Muppet shows, storytelling in the Hakawati tradition, in Horsh Beirut (Beirut pine tree forest) since 2012,” Sabbagh said.

“As many as 5,000 people come to the 2-day festival every year, which shows that the public appreciate culture. Cultural activities should not be relegated despite the other pressing priorities.”