Holy Spirit University of Kaslik’s library preserves and displays Lebanon’s past in a modern, casual atmosphere.
In the reading room of the library at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, a private Catholic university more commonly known as USEK, the feel of a stern “Silence, please!” atmosphere is absent. Instead, you’ll find a whitewalled, well-lit space with comfy red chairs that might best be described as a “coffee-ess coffee shop.” At 12 p.m. on a Wednesday, a constant low-level hum filled the room as students talked quietly while they studied. They are encouraged to think of the library as more than a place to find resources for essays and to cram for exams, said its executive director, Randa Al Chidiac. It is also “to relax … to take it easy.” In spite of its modern style, an eye to the past is also apparent on the walls, as well as in its Digital Development Center and Conservation and Restoration Center, both of which were established in 2003. On the one hand, USEK is on a mission to change the traditional perception of a library from a stuffy, silent place to a space where university students, researchers and, indeed, members of the outside community can join through a guest membership to study and explore resources. On the other hand, USEK library has a passion for the past. In collaboration with the university’s Phoenix Center for Lebanese Studies, the library “has a special mission in preserving the heritage of Lebanon,” Chidiac said. As Fr. Joseph Moukarzel, director of the USEK library, puts it, the mission is to “exist beyond time. By preserving the archives of our heritage, we immortalize the history of our ancestors and culture.”
To enter the main room of the library, students pass a display from the library’s rare book collection, including a reproduction of what is believed to be the first printed book in the Orient — a 1610 edition of “Psalter of David, Prophet and King,” which was printed in Syriac and Garshuni in the monastery of St. Anthony of Qozhaya. The original, which Chidiac calls “the treasure of USEK,” is safely stored away.
The area also features a signature wall showcasing the signatures of significant figures whose archives USEK holds. The artist, poet and writer Gibran Khalil Gibran’s signature is a highlight.
In USEK’s state-of-the-art digitization center, a team works with specialized cameras and other equipment to preserve digital copies of precious works. Among them are those of poet and writer Elias Abou Chabké; Youssef Bey Karam, who led a rebellion in the 1860s against the Ottoman Empire rule in Mount Lebanon; and the Sursock family, an aristocratic Christian family that has been living in Lebanon since the early 1700s.
The center has also digitized newspapers and other publications, such as AdDabbour (1923), Al-‘Andalib (1935), Sada al-Shimal (1925) and Az-Zajal Al-Lubnani (1933).
For a fee, the university offers digitization and preservation services to anyone who would like their personal archives made accessible in a digital format.
The Conservation and Restoration Center next door offers the opposite of a high-tech atmosphere. Here, conservationists in white lab coats work slowly and painstakingly to preserve damaged books, many of them centuries old. All the work is done by hand, and it can take several months just to complete one book.
USEK is HOME to the Lebanese Maronite Order Collection, which comprises 1,600 manuscripts as well as archives dating from the late 17th century until the present. It includes the archives of prominent Lebanese individuals and families. However, in preserving Lebanese heritage, the USEK Library team has looked further afield, acquiring Islamic, Ethiopian and Hebrew manuscripts, as well as the archives of Lebanese who have immigrated to Latin American countries, as USEK’s focus has shifted to the diaspora. The project even has a studio in Buenos Aires, where it works with the Lebanese-Syrian community.
Chidiac, who describes her profession as “a passion,” said the library is committed to continuing its mission of “openness” and “providing a holistic ducation.” As the library grows its collections, digital and otherwise, its staff teaches students “the ethics of research.” USEK now offers a master’s degree in information studies.
“The library preserves your past, but also guides you to the future,” said Chidiac.
Significant Archives Housed at USEK
• The archives of Lebanese presidents Camille Chamoun, Fouad Chehab, Elias Sarkis and Bachir Gemayel.
• The archives of Lebanese thinkers: politicians Youssef Sawda and Maurice Gemayel; poet Jawdat Haydar and historian Kamal Salibi.
• The archives of Lebanese artists: composer and musician Toufic El Bacha; singer, composer and actor Wadih El Safi; Antoine and Latifa Moultaka of the Lebanese theater; actor and comedian Salah Tizani; and satirical caricaturist Pierre Sadek.
Holy Spirit University of Kaslik’s Asher Center
From Students to Job Creators Holy Spirit University of Kaslik’s Asher Center Nurtures Aspiring Entrepreneurs
“One way to change this situation is to create jobs – to encourage people to innovate and help them develop ideas that can be commercialized,” Abou- Fadel said. Lebanon, with its highly educated population, is a better place than most for innovation, despite its current situation. “A project’s scalability is not affected by instability or the political climate in Lebanon. It’s like having your kitchen in Lebanon, but you are selling your product everywhere outside. Investors are not investing in Lebanon; they are investing in an idea.”
How it works
The Asher Center’s strategy is to put students, faculty, staff, alumni and university facilities at the disposal of businesses across a variety of industrial sectors. It does this by hosting events, workshops and competitions, and From Students to Job Creators Holy Spirit University of Kaslik’s Asher Center Nurtures Aspiring Entrepreneurs through its support of startups and SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises – with mentorship, acceleration, funding and incubation.
The Innovation Lab
In March, The Asher Center launched its Innovation Lab, an immersive hands-on program to help students, alumni and professionals in their entrepreneurial endeavors, by providing them with the appropriate tools, skills and background. The program includes workshops and courses based on hands- on experience, as well as mentoring and pitching weekly in front of a jury panel. Participants benefit from the resources of the Asher Center, including assistance from experts in technology, marketing and legal fields. By the end of the program, participants are expected to have validated all their assumptions, built and tested a business model, created an MVP (a minimum viable product with enough features to satisfy early customers and to provide feedback for future product development) and to be ready to pitch in front of investors. Currently, about 40 people are engaged in the Innovation Lab, either taking courses or participating in mentoring, which provides direct contact with university faculty members who are also entrepreneurs, mentors from the business sector or successful Innovation Lab participants who have gained knowledge they can share. And more than 6,000 have participated in events to date.
“Instead of looking for positions to fill, entrepreneurs look for problems to solve.”
Innovations and creations
Starchy is a startup that emerged at the USEK New Venture Challenge 2017, an entrepreneurship competition for the USEK community. They manufactured a new bioliquid product made from starch. It coats fruits and perishable food to extend their shelf life to 50 days from harvest without chilled storage, which is critical for exporting. The edible, natural product could be used instead of wax coatings typically found on apples. Starchy’s product is better than wax in several ways. The wax coating is expensive, it can’t be removed without peeling and it’s not healthy to eat. Their innovation is cheaper, edible and easily removed. USEK reports that many investors have expressed interest in it. Another successful product developed through The Asher Center is called Freekeh. It uses Arabic freekeh, young, green wheat that is toasted and cracked, to create a line of cereal bars. The grain is sometimes called a “superfood” because of its nutritional benefits. Freekeh is a healthy alternative to other commercial cereal bars. It also creates opportunity for farmers who grow freekeh.
Good times for entrepreneurs
In the past, when entrepreneurs wanted to start their own companies, they usually secured their funding through loans. It’s different now. The new ecosystem ensures financing for entrepreneurs, along with governance, mentoring and support. In most cases, angel investors are ready to invest in early stages of companies, willing to risk losing their money, Abou-Fadel said. “There is much more opportunity today.”
Anthony J. Asher The Asher Center’s namesake
USEK trustee and successful American businessman Anthony J. Asher suggested the idea of creating a center that would help Lebanese youth find opportunities to stay in Lebanon. He contacted monks of the Lebanese Maronite Order, knowing that his plan fit perfectly with their mission. And a collaboration was born. Asher began his career working at a title agency while attending law school. He and his father formed Guardian Title and Guaranty Agency. Guardian Title grew to be one of the largest title agencies in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.
Asher went on to form Weston, Inc., an industrial real estate ownership firm that grew to be the largest in Northeast Ohio. Now in his 80s, he has passed the reins to his children, but remains involved as the chairman emeritus. He is also the owner of Graystone Properties, Inc., a real estate development company in Cleveland.
He serves as an USEK trustee and was awarded a Doctorate Honoris Causa in Business and Commercial Services at USEK’s 2015 graduation ceremony. He has received numerous recognitions, including two distinctive lifetime achievement awards: one from the Northern Ohio Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties for exceptional contributions to the industry and the other from the Northern Ohio Lebanese American Association for showing exceptional commitment to the Lebanese community and the preservation of their heritage.
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