As Beirut struggles to recover from the massive explosion that shook the Lebanese capital on August 4, the city’s public, academic and school libraries are trying to continue providing community outreach and support while also starting the hard work of repairing badly damaged buildings.
Beirut’s libraries and independent bookstores have long been more than a place to buy or borrow books. In the past several decades, they have also preserved history, acted as community spaces, and provided psychological, social, and academic support for residents of all ages.
Now, like much of the rest of Beirut, they’re coping with damage from the blast while carrying on as well as they can.
Three municipal libraries, more than a hundred schools, and several private libraries took significant damage from the explosion at Beirut’s port that killed at least 178 people, injured tens of thousands, and left an estimated 300,000 without safe housing. Several library workers were also among the injured.
Two of Beirut’s public libraries will remain closed for what their executive coordinator, Ali Sabbagh, has called “long and expensive” repairs.
Most of the damaged libraries were already closed to the public, either shut down to prevent the spread of Covid-19 or closed for summer holidays. Yet many had continued to provide community outreach. And while Beirut’s residents have pressing needs for food, medicine and shelter in the coming months, libraries can also provide much-needed support.
Extensive Damage at Municipal Libraries
The three municipal libraries damaged in the blast are all run by Assabil Association, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1997 to establish public libraries and promote “culture for all.” Assabil opened Beirut’s first public library in 2001 and now serves more than 35,000 annual visitors, hosting more than a hundred cultural events each year.
Its three libraries are in the neighborhoods of Bachoura, Geitawi and Monot. All three are near the port, and the libraries’ windows, walls, suspended ceilings, woodwork, lighting, chairs, and more were blown apart by the force of the explosion. A video posted by Assabil shows the extent of the damage to each library.
Volunteers quickly assembled. Dozens were on the scene on August 6, two days after the blast, removing debris, cleaning up, and arranging materials.
“The disaster that struck Beirut also hit its public libraries. These cultural spaces have been forcibly closed, but we, with unrelenting resolve, will restore them as you have always known them as spaces for meeting, dialogue, culture, positive interaction and free access to knowledge.”Assabil Association
A nongovernmental organization that runs the municipal libraries
While Assabil announced that the Monot library should be able to reopen soon, the other two will have a much longer recovery period, and their collections won’t be available until the repairs are complete. Still, library staff are not waiting to resume activities like social and psychological support, Sabbagh told the French literary newspaper ActuaLitté.
After all, Sabbagh said, the city has been rocked not only the explosion, but “also by the economic and financial crisis that has thrown it below the poverty line.” He added, “The prospect of the long months to come, when the population of Beirut will have to recover, is a real challenge for our association.”
In a public statement, the Assabil team wrote, optimistically: “The disaster that struck Beirut also hit its public libraries. These cultural spaces have been forcibly closed, but we, with unrelenting resolve, will restore them as you have always known them as spaces for meeting, dialogue, culture, positive interaction and free access to knowledge.”
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In addition to mobilizing staff and volunteers, Assabil has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $55,000 it estimates it will need for structural repairs.
The British library and information association Cilip is also raising funds for the three libraries. Nicholas Poole, the association’s chief executive, said on Twitter that the campaign had raised nearly $3,600 in its first three days.
Rebuilding School Libraries
Beirut’s school libraries were also affected by the blast. The city’s schools have been closed down since March, and it is uncertain what will happen with schools in the fall, particularly as there has been a sharp rise in cases of Covid-19 since the August 4 explosion.
Like the municipal libraries, for the past two decades, Beirut’s youth libraries have been more than academic spaces. They have also been important sites for processing trauma. According to the Lebanese chapter of the International Board on Books for Young People (LBBY), bibliotherapy techniques were an important method for helping Lebanese children cope with stress after wars, including the brutal 15 years of civil strife that ended in 1990. In more recent years, LBBY has funded similar programs for Syrian refugee children, using books, theater, and other methods to help children process their emotions.
Shereen Kreidieh, a publisher who is current president of the Lebanese chapter, said over email that LBBY is currently looking for funds “to help rebuild school libraries, since there are more than 120 schools affected by the explosion.”
Donations can be made through the international association’s website, where a specific solidarity fund for Beirut libraries will appear soon, Kreidieh said.
University and Specialty Libraries
At the American University of Beirut, about two miles west of the port, libraries reported no serious injuries among library staff members or students. However, library officials said in a prepared statement that their facilities sustained “considerable damages in the premises, whereby dozens of glass windows and doors were shattered, and most of the false ceilings fell and broke, in addition to a few other minor damages.”
All of the university’s libraries, except the Saab Medical Library, have been closed to visitors for the past several months to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “Despite it all,” the statement said, “we remain functional and at your service, mostly through our remote services.”
Lebanese American University’s Riyad Nassar Library, also in the western part of the city, was also damaged in the blast. The Oriental Library of St. Joseph University of Beirut, much closer to the explosion site, also suffered damages.
The Lebanese chapter of the International Board on Books for Young People is “looking for funds to help rebuild school libraries, since there are more than 120 schools affected by the explosion.”Shereen Kreidieh
A publisher who is the chapter’s current president
Beirut’s Feminist Library, another vital community space, had moved out of its offices toward the beginning of the Covid-19 shutdown this spring and has not yet moved into its new location. While the managing partners’ homes were impacted, co-manager Deema Kaedbey reports that they are physically OK. During this crisis, the library’s volunteers have turned much of their attention to supporting other organizations, such as Egna Legna, which is bringing food, mattresses, and sanitation supplies to migrant workers displaced by the explosion.
The Arab Image Foundation, an independent association that “works at the intersection of photographic, artistic, research, and preservation practices,” was still assessing the status of its library. The association’s headquarters, in the devastated Gemmayze neighborhood, sustained major damage.
“Three team and board members had physical injuries and are recovering,” the association announced over Twitter. It added later that boxes in which photos were housed had been damaged, but the albums and prints themselves seemed to have been saved from damage.
The association wrote that that in-kind donations in form of computers, hard disks, archival material, and more were welcome. It is also collecting donations online.
Many independent bookshops, which also function as community spaces, were hit hard by the blast. Aaliya’s Books, also in Gemmayze, bore extensive damage, although thankfully no staff members were seriously injured. A crowdfunding campaign is raising money to help support the Aaliya’s Books team, with a focus on paying staff and covering medical expenses during this time.
Papercup Bookshop, located less than a mile from the port, also suffered serious losses, although the bookshop and café’s team are all safe and well. Supporters have raised more than $50,000 for Papercup and two other organizations, Studio Safar, and Jana Saleh, which are, the fund-raiser notes, “an integral part of Beirut’s new creative wave.”
A campaign is also raising funds for Manara Bookstore, in the Hamra district of Beirut, in part to help with bookstore repairs but also to support its outreach programs in the surrounding neighborhood. The campaign’s organizer, A.J. Naddaff, writes, “As corruption is pervasive, we personally know and confide very much in the store employees and owner, and will post photo updates of how your donations will have a direct impact on rehabilitation in Beirut through their outreach program.”
Most of these fund-raisers note that the city is grappling with an immediate health and housing crisis, and that people’s most pressing needs must come first. Yet as Beirut rebuilds, libraries and bookshops will also be an essential part of a just and healthy future.