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Public reading in Lebanon

Cultural action for youth and book policies

Imad Hachem/Head of Books & Reading/Lebanese Ministry of Culture


“The Lebanese are scattered around the globe. In 2009 they played hosts”. Chosen by UNESCO as the World Book Capital in 2009, Beirut was the scene of a cultural year such as Lebanon had never known.

“A window on the diversity of cultures and a bridge to link civilisations, beyond time and space, books remain for us the origin of dialogue, an instrument for exchange and a source of development”.


With its geo-political location, at the crossroads of three continents and therefore three cultures, Lebanon is an inescapable meeting point between the west and the Arab world. It is also a gateway into central Asia. However, Lebanon is above all a land which has welcomed both ethnic and religious minorities, and it is these highly diverse influences which have created the country’s cultural wealth, each contributing to the jigsaw of Lebanese cultural identity.

Modern Lebanon preciously conserves in its collective memory its experience opening up the Mediterranean and the world as well as Arab cultural resistance.

Lebanon has always shown its attachment to both the French language and culture. Through its cultural diversity it has asserted its wish for dialogue between cultures and in particular between the Arabic-speaking and French-speaking worlds.

In this context of cultural diversity, books have played an important role in the creation of modern Lebanon which has many assets regarding books and reading. The publishing sector in Lebanon developed very early on. The birth of printing in Lebanon largely contributed to making the country the Arab world’s largest book producer. Beirut played a predominant role in the dissemination of books in the East and heavily contributed to “Nahda“, the Arab Renaissance. Today it is home to almost 600 publishers who publish in Arabic, English and French, in addition to 350 newspapers and periodicals, around ten renowned universities and a whole range of cultural centres, libraries and bookstores. With a liberal political system, which is not subject to censorship, it has heavily contributed to literary, philosophical and ideological production throughout the Arab world, as well as exporting it across the region.

We should also not forget the project to rebuild the Lebanese National Library, create municipal and public libraries in different regions and Beirut, adopt a reading friendly policy and, above all, support youth publishing. This all gives rise to a highly active book market …

The conflicts which shook the country led to a drop in production and existing distribution networks and damaged the printing sector under the effect of outside shocks (the most recent being the fierce Israeli bombings in 2006, which destroyed around forty Lebanese publishing sites, offices and book warehouses). Of the 150 active publishers, 90 had their head office in the southern districts, namely those which were most affected by the bombings, as well as five cultural centres and public libraries which were heavily affected.

Today the Lebanese book market remains the most dynamic in the Arab world with around 2 000 works published annually. However, several structural obstacles pose major challenges to the business which faces the challenges of a necessary professionalization, whether the computerisation of professional practices or improving the training of qualified staff.

We know that publishing and books in Lebanon suffer from many problems: indifference due to the absence of advertising and specific broadcasts, production costs, piracy, fraud and copyright fraud, as well as small size of the Arabic market … Arab competition, the lack of state support, difficult move over to digital formats, etc.

This sector needs support to expand and to develop its capabilities and human resources so that publishing once again represents a sector capable of contributing to restarting the economy.

-       literary production


The production of school and university books occupies a very important place on the Lebanese market.

The recent implementation of copyright registration and failure by many publishers to respect it means that it is impossible to know the exact number of books published each year in Lebanon.


Literature 24 % Humanities and social science 21 %
Religion 20 % Youth 15 %
History 11 % Science 4 %
Arts 2 %

- Censorship


The Lebanese authorities do not censure before publication. However, religious institutions, which have retained a major role in the country, are responsible for banning of certain books. Publishers often resort to self-censorship to avoid any bans.

- Bookstores


Amongst the 300 shops which call themselves bookstores, only 110 are registered with the Bookstore Union. One of its rules is that in member bookstores at least 25% of shelf space must be filled with books, mostly school books.

There are no real regulations and because of this bookstores are threatened by competition of two sorts: seasonal school book sellers and publishers who sell directly to institutions.

-       Public reading

For several decades Lebanon has undergone an unprecedented development of its public reading offer thanks to many dynamic municipalities and associations, as well as actions undertaken by the Ministry of Culture.

Lebanese public libraries, which are an integral part of local life and play a cultural, educational and social role, have become true meeting places.  The importance of public libraries has today become an obvious feature of life for the Lebanese. They are constantly being developed and are at the heart of the Ministry of Culture’s action as well as that of civil society.

The 110 public libraries today fully take part in Lebanese regional development as a determining factor in social cohesion and are a recognised factor of development. Since cultural resources are not equally distributed across the country, there are certain imbalances between towns and regions, between the different regions and also the city-centres and outlying districts.

Hence the importance of extending public reading services to all the regions and consolidating the cooperation network between libraries so as to strengthen its impact.

The ministry must work on several aspects:

-          Reinforcing the capabilities of the Ministry of Culture to develop public reading

-          Create regional libraries and reinforce existing libraries

-          Training for librarians

-          Recognising and consolidating the role of librarians

-          Digitising library networks

-          Planning the necessary changeover to the digital revolution

The digital technology revolution is an opportunity for the creation of a real Arab renaissance if it is correctly used, provided that a suitable social, cultural and scientific environment is provided, based on freedom of thought and creativity for exploiting Arab cultural heritage.

Book policy in Lebanon

The dynamism of the Lebanese book market is not unrelated to the book policy implemented by the Lebanese authorities in the field of books and reading. The ministry is working on several fronts:

  • On its domestic market Lebanon decided to exempt books from VAT
  • Support for book promotion operations (shows, fairs, exhibitions, conferences) and literary creation (writers and publishers)
  • Lebanon encourages the dissemination of books and endeavours to develop its public reading offer thanks to support from many municipalities and associations, and also further to actions undertaken by the Ministry of Culture to support these initiatives and federate them nationally
  • Encouraging the development of reading using all means: associations and institutions, in particular in the field of training, information and organisation
  • The ministry has set up a permanent committee of book chain players to help the ministry develop a true national book and reading policy by studying difficulties and proposing solutions. Also, analysing the situation of books and reading and the means required to create a truly efficient policy in this field

- Conclusion

The Ministry of Culture ensures that the partnership with libraries and bookstores is consolidated to identify priorities and draw up strategies for a book and reading promotion policy.

We therefore have to decide on the sectors where we can make short term changes, ie. guaranteeing copyright, help publishing, fight against piracy, support for bookstores and libraries. This is why we wanted all those concerned with books and reading to take part so that Lebanon and Arab countries create bridges in the field of books between Arabic culture and the world’s other cultures.

This vision of today’s situation forces us to rethink our cultural policies which are all too often tainted with conservatism and resistance, and directed towards support actions which do not act on the deep links which unite culture and development, democracy, peace and modernity.

New techniques are required to go from a mentality of mass production to a mentality of producing adaptations. In a world of change, the world of Lebanese books and reading is renewing its work techniques. It is also important to make the difference between competition and cooperation: forming groups of publishers and libraries to create networks of alliances, promoting books and reading based on exact statistical studies and surveys.

“If no important change takes place in the fields of culture and education after the Year of Beirut World Book Capital, the event’s success will be limited to simply promoting and marketing.”  For sustainable cultural development, we hope for once and for all that a cultural and non-political event will predominate in our public life.




Marseille – 4 June 2010