The Arab dream of new libraries

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European and North American countries should pay attention to the development of libraries in Arab countries, writes Rafael Ball

The Arab world is an extremely rich cultural region spanning more than 20 countries and with a total population of at least 300 million. 

Despite its differing political and socioeconomic development, it is characterised and connected by a common language, religion and culture. From a library perspective, the early palace and mosque libraries were key before additional influences became palpable through contacts with Europe in particular. 

Today, there are only a handful of countries in the world that are willing and able to invest money and resources in the construction of new, representative libraries. These include many Arab nations, which construct buildings, structures and systems in accordance with their academic and cultural traditions in order to support science, research and teaching while providing cultural impetus.       

The money is always invested sensibly in libraries, and many countries in Europe and North America could take a leaf out of their book. The fact that Arab countries fall back on external expertise in developing their libraries and information structure is a matter of course these days.  Whether they call upon European or American experts, however, makes a difference. It is not only the different ‘library philosophies’, but also the historical and actual experiences in the systems themselves. 

While national structures and systems were developed and still function in the same way in many places in Europe, the library system structures in North America are usually decentralised. 

The example of inter-library loans alone reveals the central approach in the undisputed dominant position of the British Library, whereas interlibrary loans are confined to the shadows in the USA. The indexing rules in libraries, the cataloguing systematics or the professional qualification of the information professionals often differ considerably. 

Moreover, there are also different approaches towards shaping and solving library-related issues, especially in the new conception of libraries in the digitally oriented 21st century. 

Which experts are consulted is therefore important and has visible and palpable consequences. 

When selecting consultants, it already ought to be clear which goals you are setting, where the journey is supposed to go, which style you aim to bring into the country as a result – and what suits your own traditions and cultural characteristics, or the direction in which you consciously want to develop. 

Although it is – and remains – the client’s decision as to which expertise he or she wishes to enlist, knowledge of these backgrounds can certainly help decide on the individual focus. This is all the more important as the construction of libraries and the establishment of nationwide information structures is not a short-term commitment; it is a major investment in the future.

Rafael Ball is director of ETH-Bibliotek, Zurich, Switzerland