When conflict erupted in Beirut in 1975 the Lebanese National Library was an inevitable casualty, suffering extensive damage to both the building and its collection. It somehow survived until 1979, when the doors finally closed. In January the country will finally have a National Library again, at a new location, and with at least part of the original collection restored.
Reports the UAE’s The National,
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 Ottoman building originally housed a hospital, an arts and crafts school, and then the Lebanese University’s law faculty and was set as to be the new library way back in 1999.
Twenty years on, three large, climate-controlled basement rooms will help preserve the collection.
Library executive director Gelnar Atoui Saad explained,
Our stacks are underground where we have the best possible conditions for conservation. 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 Nation tells us more about the building itself.
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.
Restoring the collection has been a challenge, as the evacuated items were stored in boxes that failed to protect against insects and humidity and there was no definitive record of what was there and what was missing.
As the restoration has progressed a database of the collection has been created.
Funding the restoration of the collection came from the Lebanese government and the EU, with additional funds from Qatar to renovate the building.
Atoui Saad, in charge of the restoration, explained,
Restoring a single damaged volume can take up to a month, 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.
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.
Read more, and see more images, over the The National.