Good Reading : July 2006
JULY 2006 ı goodreading 9 book palace fully booked Is this one of the world’s grandest public libraries? The national library of Libya is a stately 20th-century palace located in the centre of Tripoli, the desert nation’s main city. A distinctive city landmark easily recognised by its orange domes, the library-cum-palace is an emblem of the sometimes turbulent history of this former ‘rogue state’. For much of its long history, Libya has had the misfortune to be in the path of other, more powerful peoples, which has seen it under the control of Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Hapsburg Spain, the Ottomans, and even the pirate Barbarossa (giving rise to the notorious Barbary coast). From the early 1700s, despite Ottoman control, a Libyan dynasty ruled with impunity, thumbing its nose at the Ottoman overlords. But in 1835, this ruling family collapsed and the Ottomans re-established their gover norship. Libyan resistance was led by Sayyid Mohammed Ali as-Sanusi, the ‘Grand Sanusi’. In 1911, the Italian government took advantage of the shaky control of the Ottoman government and invaded Libya on the pretence of liberating it; the Ottoman sultan ceded Libya to the Italians a year later.The Italians built the orange-domed palace in 1934 for use as the Italian governor’s palace (the ‘Palazzo de Governatore’).The surrounding streets are also populated with fine examples of Italian architecture, reflecting the past popularity of this inner-city suburb with the Italian occupiers. Libya was liberated from the Italians at the end of the Second World War, and eventually Libyan independence was established by the United Nations. Sayyid Idris as-Sanusi, grandson of resistance leader the Grand Sanusi, took the throne of the United Kingdom of Libya as King Idris in 1951. The governor’s palace became the palace of the king. However, as might almost be expected from a nation which has experienced so few periods of stable government, on 1 September 1969, Colonel Mu’ammar Gaddaffi overthrew the king and took power in a relatively peaceful coup. The Italian palace briefly became the assembly centre for the new gover nment, but it was very quickly turned over to the Libyan people as their national library. The library now contains more than 300,000 volumes and is an important resource for academics and researchers in a country where many of the universities and schools do not have extensive central library collections. It also has a children’s library, and one of its stated aims is to further the education of Libyan children. Indeed, literacy rates are near-100%, in sharp contrast to the dismal rates under Italian governorship. This oil-rich North African nation has only recently re- engaged with the rest of the world after sanctions imposed in the 1990s were lifted in 2004. Remarkably, given their distant and more recent history, Libyans show no hostility towards foreigners, and this openness and friendliness is reflected in their grand library. It has recently established a foreign language section containing French and English books and periodicals in many cultural and scientific branches of knowledge (particu- larly medicine and engineering). The library also features an audio-visual centre with resources including documentaries and language tapes, and holds regular general public lectures and scientific conferences as part of its program to engage with the rest of the world. The Arab National Central Library Education Culture and Public Library, to give it its full title, is included in every tour guide’s itinerary for Tripoli and justifiably so: it is not only a fine example of 20th- century Italian architecture, but also a living monument to Libyan history and to its open-ar med future. More information about the library is available at http://www.ncl-ly.org. Regular gr contributor WENDY PALMER is living in Tripoli this year, contending with lack of phonelines, ‘crazy’ driving and complete absence of street addresses (which makes getting things delivered rather awkward). But she was immediately impressed by the glorious national library in Tripoli, and sent us this article about it.