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By Yasser Fayez
In the early 1990s, the National Library of Somalia was devastated by fire as a result of the outbreak of the civil war. Since then, despite many efforts and various initiatives to rebuild it, it has remained a shell. What was the luxurious four-floor building became a shelter for displaced people made homeless due the conflict.
The grand original structure was likened to imposing parliament buildings and its site was chosen specifically in downtown Mogadishu, adjacent to the National Theatre.
The National Library of Somalia, which also became known as the Mogadishu Library, was established in 1975 and by 1983 it contained approximately 7,000 books, including historical and cultural archives. The library grew rapidly in 1986 when it expanded and became actively involved in preserving Somali cultural material as well as protecting copyright and intellectual property.
In June 2013, former director Zainab Hassan sought to restore the library to its former glory with support from the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, which brought a shipment of 22,000 books from the United States. The institute is unique in terms of its dedication to culture in a country that has been ravaged by civil war for more than two decades.
Hassan appealed to various international organisations related to libraries and cultural heritage and the Somali Government officially launched a major project to rebuild the library. Hassan has had several successes in helping to revive the library and has been working with government departments to find alternative shelter for those who have taken refuge in the building.
She invited Somali expatriates and private investors to help with the project and tried to find a way to keep pace with library technology in a country that suffers from a severe lack of modern digital infrastructure. Hassan also secured agreements to receive 60,000 Arabic language books from the Arab League as part of a strategy to provide equal numbers of books in Arabic, Somali and English.
Although many people expected the opening of the new Somali National Library to be just a short time away, the project was put on hold.
In an official document issued by the Administration of the National Library, the Somali government confirmed that it would press ahead with the project to restore the library and that its plans were to revitalise the library to become an outstanding institution on both regional and international levels.
It said the plans align with the government’s vision to have a national library that works to develop Somali citizens and play a major role in promoting peace, stability and democracy through knowledge. The government also claims that it supports its key mission dedicated to collecting, documenting and preserving the national intellectual heritage and creative industries, which Somalia needs to guarantee the revival of the national library.
Somalia lacks public libraries in general and is in urgent need of reference and knowledge-based resources for students at 50 universities, making the restoration of the National Library essential.
The project to revitalise the library aims to collect and arrange books, manuscripts, periodical publications and audio-visual recordings, which disappeared after the collapse of the state in the 1990s.
The project also strives to collect material related to all government ministries, departments and official institutions, and aims to collect and archive personal documents, issue a national bibliography periodically and arrange a unified index.
It will work to strengthen cultural exchanges within the region and beyond through cooperation with national libraries and documentation centres worldwide. The library revival project will also organise conferences, symposiums, seminars and book fairs as well as exchange, distribution and transfer programmes on both Arab and international levels in compliance with copyright law.
These goals will need more dedication, commitment and perseverance than previous initiatives but it is more than just Somalia which needs this library, it is an opportunity for the entire world to open a new window into one of the most important East African countries.