The Saudi Libraries Commission launched a new strategy aiming to transform the library sector in the Kingdom. The new ambitious plan targets the transformation and development of libraries into full-fledged cultural platforms.
Therefore, the Saudi Libraries Commission was established in 2020 to oversee and support the library sector in the Kingdom. The Minister of Culture announced the Commission´s first initiative in 2020. It includes establishing 153 new public libraries across the Kingdom by 2030, with the first libraries slated to be completed in 2022.
Saudi libraries are envisaged to turn into knowledge hubs, with activities and events that attract members of society and promote reading habits, enrichment of knowledge, and raising awareness.
The strategy aims to turn Saudi society into one that effectively builds a knowledgeable economy and achieves sustainable development goals.
According to the CEO of the Libraries Commission, Dr Abdulrahman Al-Asim, the strategy aims to empower the community to contribute to economic, educational, social, and cultural growth.
Al-Asim said that the library development would showcase the Saudi civilization and culture and promote investments into the sector.
Accordingly, the Commission will launch initiatives to support private libraries, promote Saudi culture, and benefit the Kingdom and its residents.
He explained that the Saudi library sector is promising and capable of achieving the goals of the Ministry of Culture.
The strategy is based on three main pillars. The first is developing the sector through planning, setting standards, conducting studies, training cadres, and financing.
The second pillar aims to strengthen community participation and raise awareness in Saudi Arabia through facilitating library access and promoting activities that increase the community’s interest in library services.
The third pillar focuses on building administrative and operational efficiency, raising the Libraries Commission’s employees capabilities and ensuring the effective involvement of local and international stakeholders.
Also, the Saudi Libraries Authority launched its official website to serve as a communication channel between it, beneficiaries, those interested, and workers in the sector. The site also includes a calendar of the Commission’s programs, activities and strategic initiatives.
The Saudi Libraries Commission is among 11 cultural bodies affiliated with the Ministry of Culture. It is responsible for supervising and organizing the work of libraries, developing the sector, and turning them into comprehensive cultural platforms.
Pandemic Impact on Saudi Cultural Scene
Individual and institutional stakeholders in the cultural scene faced a unique challenge in implementing public health measures set by the Kingdom’s government to address the pandemic. As a result, many festivals and book exhibitions were postponed, and theatres, galleries, libraries, and museums were closed.
International cultural contributions and various cultural activities that had grown significantly in number and quality in previous years were also cancelled. As expected, cultural spaces saw less activity and practices subsided, especially during the lockdown extending from mid-March to mid-year 2020.
Even when the lockdown was lifted, the return to public life and activities was limited because of preventative health measures. Nevertheless, a virtual cultural phenomenon arose on social media, and video platforms and specialized websites quickly responded to this reality. Forums, workshops, competitions, and exhibitions were hosted online, not to mention musical performance and reading clubs.
The pandemic affected most of the essential services offered by libraries, including receiving visitors, providing reading spaces, and lending out books. As a result, all libraries stopped receiving visitors in mid-March and were closed for varying lengths of time. After the stay-at-home order was lifted and public institutions were allowed to resume their activities, some libraries reopened to visitors while abiding by relevant precautionary measures.
Saudi Libraries were able to continue fulfilling their indispensable cultural role during the pandemic after addressing online activities. Some libraries adapted quickly and continued their activities virtually, offering public events, academic discussions, and online events for children and young adults.
Similarly, some Saudi libraries utilized their online capabilities by granting public and researchers online access to their collections. Such adaptations mitigated the negative consequences of the pandemic on the sector.
Efforts to digitize knowledge have been growing in the sector in the last few years. Many libraries have already adopted projects to this end, particularly digitizing rare collections, including manuscripts.
The King Abdulaziz Public Library organized thirteen exhibitions throughout the year, including
a virtual exhibition entitled Features and Places of Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, some libraries organized activities to coincide with the Year of Arabic Calligraphy2020.
These activities took different approaches. Some were designed as competitions and training courses to encourage and develop amateur calligraphers’ skills, such as the Write Proudly event held by King Fahd Public Library in Jeddah and the Basics of Arabic Calligraphy course by the Library of the Great Mosque of Makkah.
There were also activities on the use, development, and utilization of modern technology in Arabic
calligraphy, such as the two workshops organized by Ithra on digitizing Arabic fonts and Arabic typography, and activities on the history and rich heritage of calligraphy, such as the exhibitions held by the Ithra Library and the King Abdulaziz Public Library.
Digitization of Saudi Libraries
In addition to the Saudi Digital Library, which was established in 2010 to provide information services to educational institutions in the Kingdom, several public and university libraries have developed digital content in recent years.
They have done so by subscribing to information databases and converting their private holdings into digital formats. In addition, many university libraries have also established special digital repositories for their intellectual production, including university theses, journals, and research projects.
In 2020, one of the most prominent developments was the launch of Umm Al-Qura University’s Knowledge Platform (Dorar), aimed at making the university’s scientific production and resources available online.
The King Fahd National Library began a project to display digital book summaries in digital format and completed 115,000 books. Similarly, the King Abdulaziz Foundation for Research and Archives digitized various materials and corpora from its holdings, such as 556 film reels from its archive of photos and films in 2020.
There is a substantial interest in digitizing the knowledge content of rare collections and manuscripts in the library sector, especially since digitally preserving content is necessary if the originals are more vulnerable to damage. Moreover, maintaining and making them available for digital viewing increases those document’s accessibility to the broader public. The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies Library (KFCRIS) is distinguished for its efforts in that regard. It has so far converted 90% of the original manuscripts in its possession into digital formats.
The Saudi Libraries Commission launched the Digitization and Access to Manuscripts project to establish a unified platform for preserving and accessing digitized manuscripts. The first step of the project has already begun in cooperation with the King Fahd National Library.
Currently, the Saudi Digital Library includes more than 446,000 e-books, 169 databases, and over 5.2 million theses. In addition, Ithra Library features more than 10,000 digital and audiobooks, 6625 in Arabic and 3910 in English. Meanwhile, King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS) Library has over 25,000 manuscripts and 3,200 periodicals.