Library culture: Turning the page

Library culture: Turning the page

It is good news indeed that Makkah Gov. Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah inaugurated a 17,000 sq.meter library this week on the main campus of King Abdulaziz University.
The library promises a wide collection of more than 80,000 books with a special section for young people, women and children. Literary events, including many that will focus on the culture of reading, will also be organized.
I envy today’s Saudi children who will benefit from such a library, since such facilities were not available to us when we were young. My husband often tells me stories about his immersion as a child in his hometown library and how it shaped not only his reading habits but also the way he looked at the world.
While I was no stranger to the library environment during my studies at Saudi universities, it wasn’t until I started my postgraduate program at the University of Newcastle in England that I was fully immersed in the confines of a library. At the Robinson Library on Newcastle University’s campus, I spent as much as 12 hours a day studying, reading for pleasure, drinking countless cups of coffee and tea, gossiping and generally making myself comfortable among books I would never read and the books I could never put down. Being surrounded by books alone was enough to inspire me.
I often sent my husband up to the library early in the morning to secure a private room because crowds of students gathered at the doors just before the library opened. We needed our spot because private rooms were at a premium and it would be our home until late in the evening.
If this sounds wildly enthusiastic for a place that is meant for study, anyone who has had the experience of free and open access to a well-stocked library and nothing but time on their hands knows the feeling. I know of many friends who say their favorite childhood memories are of their time spent in libraries.
Saudi Arabia was not built around the culture of reading and the sparse offerings of library facilities have denied generations of Saudi children the understanding of what it means to take pleasure in a book. Now that video games, the Internet and social media have a firm grip on today’s generation, the prospect of getting young people to read for enjoyment is not particularly bright. This may change with the King Abdulaziz University library and its plans for children activities. It’s certainly a strong signal that the Saudi government is serious in providing an alternative to social media.
But what will be the next step? How can Saudis take this new library and expand the idea that broadens access to everyone no matter their social or economic status?
The funding and construction of neighborhood libraries can be obtained with minimal financial impact on our country. Having said that, our country is certainly wealthy enough to absorb the costs of building and maintaining neighborhood libraries throughout the Kingdom.
But perhaps a more logical move would be to combine our religious obligations and duties with that of providing knowledge to our neighbors. We remember that Abu Hurairah narrated that the Prophet (peace be upon him), said: “The good deeds that will reach a believer after his death are: knowledge which he learned and then spread; a righteous son whom he leaves behind; a copy of the Qur’an that he leaves as a legacy; a mosque that he built; a house that he built for wayfarers; a canal that he dug; or charity that he gave during his lifetime when he was in good health. These deeds will reach him after his death.”
It’s the desire of families with the financial means to leave their legacy, and I see no better way then to build a library or neighborhood mosque. A library will spread knowledge throughout the Kingdom and have an enduring impact on future generations. Naming the library after a benefactor also guarantees his place in Saudi history and ensures that his legacy remains permanent. If the government is not inclined to pay for maintenance and upkeep, then donations from the public, much like entry donations offered in public museums can defray costs.
We are slowly but surely transforming from a reading society — and by society, I mean worldwide — to a visual society. In the West, library resources and operating hours are usually the first to be trimmed when budgetary cuts are necessary. The large bookstore chains have gobbled up the independent brick-and-mortar stores. Yet one can’t help notice that public libraries, whether in America or in Europe, are jam-packed with people hungry to read whether for entertainment or study. The time is right for Saudis to have the same experience.

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