The Lebanese National Library is on the verge of reopening to the public after 40 years, having shut its doors during the Lebanese civil war. Its collection of more than 300,000 publications have been painstakingly restored over almost two decades and are now housed in an imposing red-tiled Ottoman-era complex built between 1905 and 1907 under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II.
The new library, which is located opposite Sanayeh Garden in Beirut, was inaugurated by Lebanese President Michel Aoun earlier this month, before it closed for maintenance. It will open to the public in the first week of January. The Ottoman building originally housed a hospital, an arts and crafts school, and then the Lebanese University's law faculty.
It was allocated as a new home for the library in 1999.
What to expect inside
The new library building includes three large, climate-controlled basement rooms for the collection. “Our stacks are underground where we have the best possible conditions for conservation,” says Gelnar Atoui Saad, executive director of the library. “We are a library and also a cultural centre, so we have an auditorium, we have many multipurpose rooms for workshops, conferences and exhibitions, and we have a big reading hall for the public, as well as another one for researchers who will be accompanied by a member of our team.”
The library’s unique collection contains more than 300,000 documents in multiple languages. “We have many rare books and a very special collection of Arabic periodicals. We have Arabic, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Armenian, Syriac – many languages,” says Atoui Saad.
As well as books, manuscripts, rare documents and periodicals, the collection includes paintings, government publications, maps and plans, music scores and postcards. The newer collection also includes CDs and DVDs, and the library facilities will include computers, internet access and printers. Members of the public can sign up for a nominal fee – which has yet to be finalised – allowing them to make use of the facilities and peruse the collection – materials cannot be taken offsite.
The architecture and restoration was been developed by Beirut-born French architect Jean-Marc Bonfils, renowned for his work on the reconstruction of central Beirut following the Lebanese Civil War. The interior of the building has been sensitively renovated and adapted. The soaring atrium is now filled with neat rows of desks, overlooked by glass walkways. A glass wall at one end provides plenty of natural light. The building has retained its original stone arches, beautiful marble pillars and floors adorned with decorative tiles, creating a literary oasis set amid a small garden.
The historic building is a fitting location for an institution with roots dating back to 1865 and the birth of viscount Philippe de Tarrazi, a writer, poet, scholar and historian of the Arab press, who originally proposed the idea of a national library to the government.
De Tarrazi’s vision of a space where intellectuals could meet, scholars could research and the public could engage with Beirut’s rich literary culture and heritage led him to donate his own large collection of valuable books and manuscripts, magazines and newspapers to what he called the Great Library of Beirut, and to travel Europe acquiring thousands of new volumes at his own expense.
The challenges ahead
In July 1922, the library was officially inaugurated, located in the Prussian Deaconess school in the centre of Beirut. Over the following decades the collection slowly grew, but in 1975, fighting broke out in downtown Beirut. The building suffered significant damage in the conflict and an estimated 1,200 of the most precious manuscripts disappeared, along with the details of the catalogue and the library’s operational procedures. Four years later, the library closed its doors.
“After 1979 when they closed the library, they placed the collection we have now in boxes and they stored it in many different places in very bad conditions,” says Atoui Saad, who was project manager of the revival programme launched by the government in 2003.
Many of the publications were damaged by insects and humidity. It wasn’t until 2002 that the remaining boxes were moved to temporary premises in the Beirut port, where a team led by European experts began to sort and inventory the collection. “When we began going through these 3,400 boxes, we didn’t have a registry, so we had to create an electronic database just to know what we had,” recalls Atoui Saad.
The process of restoring the rarest and most valuable publications began in 2003 with an initial budget of just over $1.5 million (Dh5.5m), funded by the European Union and the Lebanese government. A donation of $25 million from the Qatari government in 2005 was allocated for the restoration of the new building.
Restoring a single damaged volume can take up to a month, explains Atoui Saad, so the decades-long process has involved identifying the rarest and most valuable documents, those deemed valuable to Lebanon’s literary heritage, and restoring those as a priority. Some of the more common volumes were replaced rather than restored. The process is still ongoing, after 15 years of work.
“We have a restoration workshop in our building and we have five people who do the restoration, but it needs a lot of money and time,” Atoui Saad says. To date, more than 110,000 books have been restored, scanned, catalogued and shelved in the new library building. The next stage is to digitise the entire collection.
Like many government projects in Lebanon, the opening of the Lebanese National Library has been plagued by delays and setbacks, in part due to external factors including the 2006 war and the 2014-2015 presidential vacuum.
Atoui Saad admits that although the opening is a long-awaited milestone, many challenges still lie ahead. She says the library will adapt and improve based on feedback from the public it serves.
“This is still an active project – we’re just beginning,” says Atoui Saad. “It’s a dream that has been realised. Now we begin a new phase, but it’s very difficult. Now we’re an institution with a new building and as a team we need to work hard to be the best we can be.”