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Libraries: From Information Literacy to Comprehensive Cultural Platforms

Libraries: From Information Literacy to Comprehensive Cultural Platforms

Sunday, 13 June, 2021 - 05:30
Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan
Saudi Minister of Culture

Our country has boasted libraries from the early days of its history. It boasts the library of Makkah at the Grand Mosque, which was established 1,282 years ago, private libraries and public ones, which have flourished since the reign of the founder in the late 1920s. In 1988, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz inaugurated the King Fahad National Library in Riyadh. Today, in wake of the adoption of the strategy of the Libraries Commission, we are standing before an important shift in transforming libraries from “vessels of information” into a “comprehensive cultural platform”.

Taking a brief glimpse at the history of libraries in our country, we can notice that after a rapid rise, their growth has greatly declined amid challenges that accumulated over the years. After the period of waqf and private libraries, the sector witnessed remarkable growth during the reign of the founder King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman. At the time, the country was forging its way towards development and construction. The political leadership’s interest went beyond preserving and developing existing libraries to establishing several public ones. He envisioned libraries as a platform for knowledge and information that would be available to his citizens. This priority was reflected on his focus first and foremost on education.

Libraries were present in the agendas of planning the Kingdom’s development. This firm conviction is evident since the reign of the founder to the reign of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Saudi Arabia now boasts 2,329 public and private, university, waqf and specialized libraries, as well as the national library.

Despite the significance of the cultural achievements in expanding libraries in past decades, the numbers are still below expectations: The number of libraries for every one million individuals in Saudi Arabia is three, compared to 64 in Britain, 28 in the United States, 158 in Finland and 26 in Japan. The number of public libraries in Saudi Arabia remains low (84 throughout 13 provinces), while Finland (which is smaller and less populated than the Kingdom) enjoys 870.

In the age of rapid technological development, our public libraries lack in technological infrastructure. Their collections are below expectations (46.42 percent of libraries have less than 10,000 books). Their operational problems, weak cultural programs and stagnation is reflected in the low number of visitors. Statistics show that even before the coronavirus pandemic, visits to the 84 public libraries were five in every 1,000 individual, while in the US the number stood at 4,480 visits in every 1,000.

After my colleagues at the Libraries Commission kicked off their work on drafting the strategy, they - along with local and international experts - put their fingers on the problems, causes for the stagnation and unhealthy silence in library halls. Today, a library cannot be attractive to the public if it suffers from a weak digital infrastructure, lack of usability testing and a vague policy on activities and cultural programs. Other challenges include lack of diversity in sources of funding, limited partnerships and lack of performance testing.

In order to overcome all of these challenges and invest in opportunities, which we have found to be many in the sector, the Libraries Commission strategy was based on three pillars. The first is the development of the libraries sector through general planning, standards and regulations, studies and statistics, funding and investment, and the development of cadres. The second is raising the level of information literacy in the Kingdom through easing access to library services and carrying out awareness activities and promotions to increase the public’s interest in library services. The third pillar will focus on developing the administrative and operational capabilities in securing a positive work environment, developing capacities and allowing the participation of local and international stakeholders.

My colleagues are working on a strategy (whose highlights were published on the Culture Ministry’s website on May 25), guided by clear main performance indicators for the entire sector. In developing the libraries, the indicator “on the number of libraries that have been digitally transformed each year and the annual average of use of digital library services to support the digital transformation of library services” comes into play. Indicators such as the “average satisfaction of practitioners in the libraries system, and response of libraries for requests for data” help measure the development of the efficiency of the sector. They also help assess the extent of the investment of the private sector in public libraries, the average annual development of these investments and the development of the sources of funding. They assess the improvement of services and ease of access to libraries, raising the level of information literacy, bolstering reading habits, increasing participation at cultural programs at libraries, providing an attractive work environment, building advanced internal capabilities and activating local and regional partnerships.

We believe that the libraries sector boasts several opportunities for investments and development. The sector can become an attractive comprehensive cultural platform for all members of society seeing as we have the tools for success to create the difference and achieve the Commission’s vision for an information society that takes part in building a knowledge economy and achieve sustainable developments goals.

The importance of libraries is not limited to obtaining information and science, but it goes much deeper than that. It is how the Singaporeans say, “Reading is for life” - to breathe life in knowledge and launch the spark of imagination and creation of opportunities and capabilities to enable the community of the libraries sector in Saudi Arabia to contribute in economic, educational, social and cultural growth as stipulated in the Commission’s mission.

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