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Why Palestine needs national library more than presidential palace

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement of a national library was welcomed by the country’s cultural elite who consider it a start in securing Palestinian heritage and memory.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greets delegates after addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz - RC14DB288570

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Does Palestine need a new presidential palace or a national library? When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas opted for the latter, he received the approval of the country’s academics and book buffs, who herald the future library as a major tool to bring together Palestine’s scattered archives.

Abbas’ announcement to turn the presidential palace into a national library comes after five years of construction efforts in Sarda, a town north of Ramallah.

For Palestinian Minister of Culture Ehab Bseiso, whom Abbas tasked with following up on the library construction, the decision is a move to create a symbol of national sovereignty. “The decision was taken earlier this year,” said Bseiso at a press conference in August. “We want the national Palestinian library to be our link to national libraries around the world. We want to restitute our looted heritage [by getting back Palestinian documents from around the world] through agreements that protect cultural heritage and traditions and laws defending our cultural existence.”

Bseiso's call to “restitute heritage” refers to the 1980 UNESCO definition on national libraries stating that “libraries [are] responsible for acquiring, copying and conserving all significant publications published in the country and serving as 'deposit' libraries either by law or under other arrangements.”

Hani Jaber, the director of An-Najah National University Libraries, told Al-Monitor that the decision is one of the most significant ones made since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, to bolster Palestinian culture and intellectual input and to answer the calls of many academics who want Palestine to have a national library.

“The national library is an important state asset, just like ministries, and it is a Palestinian heritage spot that preserves cultural components that are directly linked to people’s relationships with their land and existence,” he said.

Jaber noted that the national library will have a different role than other libraries, as it would hold national archives that include historical maps of Palestine, key documents related to Palestinian history and texts of key agreements such as the Oslo Accord. These documents would constitute an important source of reference to both academics studying Palestinian history or politics as well as politicians who would use them as a reference.

According to Jaber and Bseiso, the national library is important for Palestine because it will gather the scattered documents that trace Palestinian history, such as the remaining archives of the Palestinian Research Center, which are preserved in Algeria, as well as documents in Britain that date back to the days of the British Mandate and documents related to properties and land ownership in the Ottoman archives.

Jaber talked about pre-emptive measures to protect the archives and contents of the library from looting. He said, “Palestinian heritage and archives were robbed during the 1967 Naksa [Displacement] and the 1948 Nakba [Catastrophe] when Israel attacked public and private libraries and displayed their contents at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Serious measures should be put in place to protect what will be available in this library.”

Jaber underlined the need for a comprehensive electronic archival system in which electronic versions of key documents would be kept on several different servers as a precaution. Bseiso said that measures should be taken to secure the archive, which will be announced in due time.

Fady Asleh, an independent researcher on Palestinian heritage, uses social media to address the importance of the library in creating an alternative reference for the Israeli narrative and libraries that normally are the primary source for researchers studying Palestinian heritage before and after the Nakba.

Asleh wrote on Facebook, “The national library is one for all people, despite their differences. It conserves their heritage, knowledge and ideas and constitutes a road to change. There are thousands of Palestinian documents, books and maps in Israeli archives and scattered across the world. Hundreds of Palestinian researchers resort to Israeli archives and libraries daily for lack of a space that meets their demands and provides them with the sources they need.”

Palestinian writers also wish for a publishing house to be established, to assist in the development of book publishing in Palestine, as this would encourage an intellectual property law that does not currently exist in Palestine.

Murad al-Soudani, the secretary-general of the General Union for Palestinian Writers, told Al-Monitor, “We have been calling for a national library that would be the starting point in institutionalizing Palestinian cultural affairs and help secure Palestinian culture, heritage and memory. It would include the creative products of writers in the Palestinian territories and abroad and protect their rights by contributing to the creation of an intellectual property.”

Soudani said that for the establishment of the library, specialists with relevant local and international expertise and who are trained in library science are required, adding, "The most significant accomplishment would be establishing a national Palestinian publishing house to get rid of Israel’s grip on books by moving them to the Palestinian territories.”

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