A vibrant and important center of culture and learning, Al-Bireh Public Library is located in Al-Bireh municipality, just next to Ramallah. The library contains approximately 50,000 books and periodicals and has 18,000 members. Although it only has only six employees, the library maintains seven-days-a-week service.
The library’s staff recognizes that a library is more than books. Al-Bireh’s collection includes music CDs and film DVDs, and staff coordinate trips to historic locations, reading contests, book discussions, music festivals, lectures by writers and intellectuals, and other fun and educational activities. Much of this programming is meant to serve local youth; in addition to arts events, the library organizes field trips, including to help with olive harvests, as part of its youth library service.
The history of Al-Bireh Public Library is entwined with that of Palestinian resistance. It was established in an apartment in 1966; in its early days it operated, as one librarian put it, “while warplanes circled overhead.” Its founding librarian wrote an early communiqué against the Israeli occupation. The state of Israel shut it down for a time in 1982, but the library continued to host lectures on how to resist Israeli aggression, and serve as a crucial space for community meetings.
Official censorship has long impacted the collections of Al-Bireh and other libraries in the region. By 1993, for example, over 5000 titles were banned under Israeli law, including books by Agatha Christie and Mahmoud Darwish. Alongside this official censorship and the budget problems common to public libraries generally, it is difficult to get many books into Palestine. Israel has imposed a restriction on ordering books directly from Lebanon, where much high-quality Arabic language literature is published. What books it is easier for libraries to order tend to be of lower quality. The staff is looking to improve the English language collection, which features fiction and humanities and is used primarily by teenage private school students and university students.
Watch a video of staff member Hamsa discussing the library’s work during our 2013 delegation.