Palestinian National Library to collect Palestine's scattered archives

Palestine's former minister of culture, Ihab Bseiso, is in charge of establishing a national library — a project that will require a lot of diplomacy and fundraising.

al-monitor The building of what used to be a Palestinian presidential palace is seen after it was turned into a national library, Ramallah, West Bank, Aug. 28, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Oct 25, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Ihab Bseiso's job may be every bibliophile’s dream: The former minister of culture is charged with creating the Palestinian National Library in a palace that stretches over 40 dunams, or 9 acres, of land near Ramallah.

Despite the enthusiasm of Bseiso — a journalist, poet and advocate of culture as a tool of political resistance — the establishment of the national library has been anything but quick. Two years ago, President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision to turn the presidential palace in Sarda, north of Ramallah, into a national library. It took another two years to appoint Bseiso, who was one of the brains behind the project to gather Palestine's scattered archives.

“We want the national Palestinian library to be our link to national libraries around the world," he said at a press conference in 2017. "We want to reclaim our looted heritage [by getting back Palestinian documents from around the world] through agreements … and through laws defending our cultural existence.”

Bseiso, 41, stepped into politics after a career in media and communications. He worked at Birzeit University's media department before joining the government’s media center in 2012. After a few years as a government spokesman, he served as culture minister in the Palestinian Authority from April 2014 to April 2019.

Since assuming directorship of the library earlier this year, Bseiso has worked to establish the library, which he believes will be the among the most important cultural accomplishments of the PA’s rule. The library will be multi-functional, housing key books, documents, maps and multimedia materials. It will also standardize a cataloging system for the books and issue reference numbers for books without them. This, said Bseiso, is an important step in preventing copyright infringement in Palestine.

“The library will be a national, cultural edifice responsible for ordering, conserving and safeguarding important publications and documents published by the state, as well as books and documents published in and about Palestine," Bseiso told Al-Monitor. It will also include a digital library so researchers around the world can have access to documents, publications and photography related to the Nakba, or the Catastrophe, which refers to the establishment of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians.

The attempts to establish a reference center for Palestine studies to archive key documents — such as with the Center for Palestinian Studies in Beirut, the Institute for Palestine Studies, and the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem — have been largely scattered and incomplete.

Realizing the national library's goal of collecting Palestine's scattered archives and documents, from treaties to maps, will require the cooperation of countries that have played roles in Palestine's history. Turkey currently holds many manuscripts and documents about Palestine under Ottoman rule. And Britain, which established its mandate over Palestine after World War I, also possesses key documents, explained Bseiso.

The national library will also seek to reclaim the books, archives and maps that Israel looted, Bseiso said. “Israel shut down the Orient House in Jerusalem in 2001, and the Arab Studies Society in 1988, with more than 80,000 manuscripts and books locked inside and unreachable," he said. "Israel also confiscated 25,000 books from the PLO’s Research Center Library and the center’s archive in Beirut in 1982."

He continued, “Palestine's accession to the UN in 2012 allowed us to join international institutions. Therefore, we will use all international and legal frameworks to recover everything that was looted before the establishment of the national library. This is the right of the Palestinian people, and these contents should be in the national library."

But coordination and diplomacy is needed. “We need to work and coordinate at the national, Arab and international levels, with public or national libraries, to restitute Palestinian publications and productions. We want to have everything written about Palestine around the world by coordinating with public libraries everywhere,” he said.

Bseiso said that the library will be a reference, not a rival, for other libraries. “The national library will not replace any other library," he said. "It is here to coordinate and cooperate with other institutions and libraries to prepare unified archiving and indexing systems to develop scientific research and ensure the availability of references that researchers need.”

For funding, the library relies on governmental contributions, donations and grants from institutions and individuals, endowment sponsorships and fundraising events and activities.

The library will be a semi-autonomous body, yet several members of government ministries will sit on the board. Headed by Bseiso, the board will have 12 members, including undersecretaries from the ministries of culture, tourism and higher education. Membership will last three years, with terms renewable once. Bseiso will select the members of the board and President Abbas will approve them. Writers, novelists and historians will sit on the advisory committee, and a professional team will run the library.

The biggest challenge is constructing the library itself, including the surrounding gardens, exhibition spaces and labs to sterilize and assure the protection of the documents. Bseiso said, “We are racing against time.”

“It took Palestinians too long to establish the national library," he said. "This step should have been a priority, despite all political challenges surrounding us, because it helps us make our voices heard in international, humanitarian and Arab circles. It is the most important Palestinian cultural edifice that preserves our narrative, heritage and legacy.”

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