Though it is not particularly well known, there is an impressive number of public libraries in Lebanon.
The concept of a “public library,” where people borrow and return books and read newspapers and magazines free of charge, is relatively recent in Lebanon, with the first being established in Baakline in 1987. Others generally started after the year 2000. For this reason it might be a great surprise to most people that more than 50 public libraries have been established in Lebanon, and that they are in towns and villages throughout the country, as well as in all the major cities. The libraries discussed here are “public” in three important respects. They are open to all, are free and generally have some government support.
There are three networks of public libraries in Lebanon along with some that are unaffiliated. One of these networks has been developed by Assabil, a non-governmental organization founded in 1997 to establish, promote and support public libraries in Lebanon.
From the start, Assabil has had two major concerns: providing free and unlimited access to information, and creating public spaces. For a refundable deposit of LL10,000 for a library card people can have access to its three libraries in Beirut (Bachoura, Geitawi and Monnot) where they can borrow books, read magazines and daily newspapers, enjoy free high-speed Internet, and attend a diversity of programs like writing workshops, computer classes and cultural events. There are also programs for children, including storytelling, theater, arts and crafts. Assabil also has a mobile library called Kotobus which brings books and a wide range of activities to public schools, Palestinian camps, and NGOs serving underprivileged children in Beirut and its suburbs.
Assabil has been increasingly inclusive, not only providing services targeted to Lebanese citizens, but also to foreign residents, refugees and more recently to migrant domestic workers. Thus, while the largest number of books is in French, followed by Arabic and English, other languages represented include Armenian, German, Spanish, Tamil and Amharic.
Assabil also supports the development of libraries throughout Lebanon by providing advice, guides and toolkits, workshops and books. The Assabil website lists the benefits and requirements for inclusion in its network.
A second network of public libraries was created by the International Organisation of La Francophonie) as Centres de Lecture et d’Animation Culturelle (CLAC – Reading and Activity Centers).
Twenty-eight CLAC centers have been established in Lebanon. The municipalities provide the buildings and staff, and the CLAC program has covered the cost of books, furniture, shelves and staff training. CLAC libraries, like those of Assabil, provide various cultural and recreational activities.
Both the CLAC and Assabil networks have a strong relationship with the Culture Ministry, and are listed on its website (now under reconstruction).
A third network of the Welfare Association has seven libraries in Palestinian refugee camps – established in partnership with local organizations. Assabil gives them consultancy and training on selecting books, renovating spaces, and developing programs and activities.
The main problem of Lebanon’s public libraries is that they cannot afford to pay appropriate salaries and benefits or increase and update their collections. Libraries need motivational activities to attract people, but a poorly paid librarian is unlikely to make that extra effort. Often individuals, families or NGOs will start a library, but not maintain it so that some have closed.
For those who want to support a public library – financial support is the most helpful. There are also many opportunities for people to volunteer in libraries. In addition, you can donate your own unwanted books, although you should check with the library first about its restrictions. While many of the libraries accept books in different languages, books in Arabic are more highly sought after.
Above all, you are welcome to borrow books from your local public library and enjoy its many other programs and services. For a fairly complete list of public libraries in Lebanon, go to the website of the Culture Ministry.