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Getting Books Into the Hands of Arab Readers

“You can’t have a knowledge society without libraries,” says professor of library studies Sumayya Ahmed. This is the reason that countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—small, young, oil-rich states that aim to be hubs of education and innovation—are investing in them. And it’s the reason Ahmed arrived in Qatar in the fall of 2016, to teach information and library studies at a new master’s degree program offered by University College London Qatar. UCL Qatar is based in Education City, a higher-education complex founded in 2003 that hosts branches of Northwestern University, Georgetown University, Texas A&M University and several other institutions of higher learning.

As a doctoral student at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ahmed participated in a four-year fellowship to help train library professionals in the Middle East. The program ran from 2011 to 2015, and was partly disrupted by the upheaval of the Arab Spring. But that wasn’t the only hurdle.

“Unfortunately library science is looked down upon,” says Ahmed. “Librarians are viewed as people who couldn’t do any other job.” Libraries are rarely staffed by trained professionals, although many who work there are eager to learn more and to acquire credentials. Having said that, Ahmed adds that the lack of knowledge and esteem for librarianship isn’t unique to Arab countries: “Even in the United States people don’t understand what librarians do.” But their ability to organize, access and contextualize information is, according to Ahmed, a skill that is needed not only in libraries, but also in data-intensive private sector companies.

Ahmed’s interest in the Middle East began when she converted to Islam at 17. During her university years, the Chicago native travelled to Morocco on a study-abroad program, taking her undergraduate degree in Arab studies. She applied to her Ph.D. program in library science on the recommendation of a friend. A fluent Arabic speaker, Ahmed believes that “library studies need to be relevant to the local situation… professors should be familiar with the language and culture.”

According to Library and Information Science in the Middle East and North Africa, a 2016 volume edited by Ahmed with Amanda B. Click, Jacob Hill and John D. Martin III, there are 71 library science programs in the region. But these do not always offer advanced degrees, or up-to-date training in information technology. The degree has “low status,” researchers found, and a majority of students in library science programs enroll out of convenience rather than an interest in the field.

The volume includes recommendations to create a regional association of library programs; to increase coordination between libraries; to update curricula and teaching methods; and to make programs more technically and professionally oriented.

Much of the work done toward achieving these objectives in library and information science programs has taken place in the Maghreb and in the Gulf. Countries such as Qatar and the UAE have a rich oral heritage of poetry and storytelling, but little in the way of an indigenous written record. Yet they are now at the forefront of a regional trend to encourage reading.

Qatar’s expanded national library is due to open this year, and many museums and universities in the emirate are also building their own libraries. “The government of Qatar say they need hundreds of librarians,” says Ahmed. “And information professionals could work in the private sector as well.” In 2016, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development created a national reading program, aimed at encouraging early reading. Another recent initiative is a television program aimed at young children that teaches the Arabic alphabet.

In the United Arab Emirates, the Sharjah authorities have established small libraries in tens of thousands of homes, and there are plans to do the same in mosques and airport terminals. Last year the country passed a law aimed at “making reading a life-long habit.” The law stipulates that all children in the Emirates be given several book bags at an early age; allows employees to read for professional development at work; makes it mandatory for cafes to provide reading materials; and exempts books from taxes. Dubai has—characteristically—announced that it will build the “the biggest library in the Arab world,” to be housed in a building shaped like an open book.

But it’s not all positive news. While the Middle East is home to some of the most ancient and famous libraries in the world—the library of Giza, which may date back to 2500BC, the Royal Library of Alexandria in Egypt, and the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in Iraq—it is common today to hear academics and writers deplore the lack of a culture of reading.

While reliable information on publishing and readership in the region is not available, we know the book market in the Arab world today suffers from a lack of efficient regional distribution, from censorship and from piracy. It is also evident that the number of people who read regularly for pleasure is quite low; the average print run of most books is 1,000 to 3,000 copies. Illiteracy remains a problem, but is not the whole story—studies and surveys have found that even among the literate, there are many who never pick up a book after finishing their formal education.

One explanation for low readership in the region may be the prevalence of oral communication, says Ahmed. “Face-to-face time is valued over face-to-paper time.” Reading is closely associated with practical pursuits, such as reading manuals; with formal education (and the tedium and rigidity of many students’ experience in school); and with religion (an estimated 17 percent of books published in the region are religious books).

The region also suffers from a lack of local public libraries and of children’s and school libraries. Often the preoccupation with “securing” knowledge is such that libraries are not hospitable spaces for readers, and borrowing books or accessing manuscripts—many of which are not digitized—is difficult.

In countries such as Syria and Iraq, conflict has destroyed libraries along with many other cultural institutions and landmarks. An online campaign is underway to re-stock the library of Mosul University, which was burned and destroyed during the battle to retake the city from the Islamic State. In other countries, it is political repression that has targeted the buildings. Recently, the Egyptian authorities closed three libraries that served children in disadvantaged neighborhoods because they were created by a prominent human rights activist who is on trial.

Ahmed says she is distressed by “seeing people who want access to books and want access to academic journals and can’t get them,” because of the cost of shipping and of subscriptions to academic databases.

As Al-Fanar Media reported recently, some libraries in the region are working on shared online digital databases. Ahmed believes that online access to library collections is an excellent resource, yet cautions that it is not a solution for everyone. Many potential readers still do not have reliable Internet access or the devices necessary to read books and materials online.

Ahmed has done much of her research in Morocco, which, despite being home to many ancient archives and the oldest existing library in the world, suffers, like many countries in the region, from the absence of a reading culture. Ahmed found that reading in public is rare and sometimes considered “anti-social.” But as she has documented, Morocco is also home to a growing number of measures to promote reading. These include mobile “book caravans” that head into villages in the remote Atlas mountains; schemes that encourage public reading groups; and the creation of small lending libraries of just a hundred volumes each, dispersed around the country.

These may only be small steps, but grassroots initiatives like this, coupled with bigger government-level programs such as those in the Gulf States, could be the solution for the region’s “crisis of reading.”


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