We meet the couple whose labour of love in Amman offers more than just books
Amman's first English-language lending library has more than 27,000 books
There is a smell to old, loved books. Step into any library and it’s an immediate heightening of the senses. Tiny dust particles shimmer in the light, a calm silence fills your ears and, most of all, you are greeted by the smell of old tomes prickling your nose. It is a smell with an underlying mustiness – woody and earthy and completely scientific. Smell, after all, is chemistry, and the chemistry of old books – the compounds in the glue, the paper, the ink, all of which are decomposing, release volatile compounds.
The scent, comforting and familiar, is unique to old tomes and it hits you the minute you step into the old converted villa in western Amman, just off Makkah Street. Books are everywhere, close to 27,000 of them, covering every inch of the space’s sprawling rooms, piled floor to ceiling on custom-made bookshelves, waiting to be sorted on kitchen counters and arranged in baskets in the children’s room so little hands can reach them.
Just outside the villa an unassuming sign informs you that you’ve reached “Reading For All – Books and More Library”. For founders Nancy and Harvey Bacus, choosing an accurate location for what they’d created was imperative because they were building something Amman had never seen before.
“We wanted to create a library that’s like a home away from home, somewhere relaxing, where people can come in and feel the peace and quiet,” explains Nancy. “I always tell people who walk on in: ‘You’re welcome to come anytime our doors are open, sit and read a book, make yourself a cup of tea. This place is a safe haven for you’.”
The very concept of a library seemed alien to the Jordanian community, the couple says. Retired college educators from Missouri, they were in Prague in 2002 when they met a Jordanian doctor from California. “He was so excited by the library in Prague – a public lending library where people can go in and check out books – and said there was nothing like that in Jordan and that we should start one,” Nancy tells me.
The doctor was right. The library at the Children’s Museum of Jordan, though impressive, can be enjoyed only on site – children can’t check books out. The same goes for the Haya Cultural Centre. A small library opened near the Roman amphitheatre in old Amman but it has just a small selection of Arabic books and the children’s section is almost non-existent. Apart from the British Council, which has deteriorated in recent years, libraries in Jordan – and in most of the Middle East – are a foreign concept.
Later the couple took an impromptu trip to Jordan. “We found the people very friendly, very welcoming and hospitable,” recalls Harvey. “We stopped at a little cafe for a cold drink and the owner refused to take our money, insisting we were his guests. Where else would this ever happen? We liked what we saw.”
On trips to follow, the Bacus’s began researching. They created surveys and found that among university students, business leaders and young parents, the concept of a library was appealing.
“One drawback that was brought up by many of the university students was their belief that we’d never get our books back,” Nancy says with a smile. “We just laughed and said ‘we’ll see’. All libraries have to bear that in mind, and to be honest, that hasn’t happened very often here.”
When they proposed the idea to the Jordanian culture minister in 2003, who described it as an “excellent” idea, but cautioned “Jordanians are not readers”.
“That just meant we had something to change, especially if we start with the children,” adds Nancy.
The children’s space in the library is filled with lights and there are thousands of books to choose from. Separate rooms in the villa houses books for teens and young adults, complete with cosy armchairs and study desks. The little ones have an enclosed balcony space where story time and music classes take place, and where they can play with educational toys after class so mothers can connect and make friends.
“We’ve become so valuable to mothers, and it really warms my heart,” says Nancy. “I always try to encourage parents to pull their children away from all the devices, to acknowledge reading is so important because it stretches a child’s imagination.
“With reading, you have to picture the characters, the settings in your mind, but with TV, it’s all shown to you, there’s nothing to imagine.”
The books were all donated from across the US through fund-raisers and book fairs, and from intellectuals in Jordan. The library opened at last in 2010 in a small location, and then moved to its current spot in 2017.
Every time the Bacus’s travel back home to visit their children, they return to Jordan laden with suitcases full of books. And every time they must present a list of these books – everything from titles, authors, publishers and copyright dates – to the authorities at the ministry of culture for approval.
“I want children to learn to love to read,” says Nancy. “If we can just get the idea of libraries to take root ... Jordan has so many children! And this can spread in the region! Can you just imagine?”
The Books and More library is open from 10am to 6pm daily, except Fridays and Sundays. Follow “Reading For All - Books and More Jordan” on Facebook