CAIRO—Ten years ago, librarians at the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, began a project to gather together the catalogs of libraries across the Arab world and present them in a single online database.
The Arabic Union Catalog established a uniform standard for the cataloguing of Arabic texts. It brought to light the existence of books that previously had been known only to users of local libraries. And through economies of scale it reduced the cost of cataloguing.
Electronic and online technologies have made the benefits of collaboration by university and other libraries in Arab countries hard to ignore, and institutions have been gradually taking the necessary steps to set up regional and national library consortia (often this involves overcoming institutional resistance and bureaucratic obstacles).
Sherif Kamel Shaheen, a professor of library and information science at Cairo University, points to a variety of ways Arab libraries can work together.
For example, the Lebanese Academic Libraries Consortium brings together the libraries of seven private universities in a single website. Also in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Digital Library provides information services to the kingdom’s higher-education institutions.
And the Egyptian Universities Libraries Consortium provides a similar online service to its Saudi counterpart: It aims to eliminate the duplication of resources at Egyptian universities and promote sharing of materials. In the United Arab Emirates, the Library Information Web Access provides a single searchable catalog of over one million books and other library resources held by contributing libraries.
A library consortium strengthens the buying power of libraries facing the cost of expensive subscriptions to digital information. The Jordanian Academic Library Consortium saved its members $380,000 in fees for a single database after it began coordinating subscriptions among its members.
Besides cost reductions through group purchasing and encouraging the sharing of resources among library members, the dean of library affairs at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saleh Al-Baridi, says consortia promote the development of joint programs such as digitization and technology deployment.
“It is known that consortia support the learning, teaching and research in any academic library in the world by providing access to more resources,” Houeida Kammourié, chair of the Lebanese Academic Library Consortium, says. Building a strong library consortium among Arab academic libraries is a major factor in enriching and strengthening the services provided by libraries participating in those consortia, she says.
A study published by the University of North Carolina in 2015 pointed to benefits Arab libraries could receive by working together, whether in formal consortia or less formal collaborative alliances.
For instance, Arab libraries could develop inter-library loans; digitize texts for presentation online (enabling access to rare or fragile documents), and share professional skills through training programs. Also, partnerships with libraries established long before the electronic age could make the contents of the Arab region’s ancient libraries available to scholars worldwide.
Finally, in an address given at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in November 2016, Dr Khalid al-Halabi, head of the Arab Federation for Libraries and Information, urged libraries in the region to work together to prepare management plans to protect holdings from the ravages of war and natural disaster.
Promoting and helping in the creation of university library consortia has been one of the aims of Electronic Information for Libraries, a not-for-profit initiative that works with libraries around the world to enable access to knowledge. In the Middle East it has supported projects in Algeria, Sudan, Palestine and (until 2011) Syria.
Randa Al Chidiac, executive director of the library at University Sainte Esprit of Kaslik, in Lebanon says: “With the continuing price increases and the shrinking budgets, I believe the more institutions that stand together, the higher the voice and the greater the impact.”
Other library consortia in the Middle East and North Africa are:
- BIRUNI, an online resource representing Tunisian academic libraries.
- PALICO, the Palestinian Library and Information Consortium
- Algerian Consortium of Higher Education and Scientific Research Establishments
- SULC, Sudanese Universities Library Consortium.