A peek inside Abrehot and Addis’ reading culture
At the very center of the bustling capital lies Arat Kilo Square, where the rhythms of politics and learning now beat in harmony. This storied crossroads has long housed the seats of governmental power – from the highly secure Office of the Prime Minister, the Parliament building, and the Presidential Palace nearby. But a new presence now shares this pulsing epicenter – Abrehot, Ethiopia’s flagship national library.
The gleaming four-story structure pulsates with the vibrant designs of traditional “Tibeb” fabrics and an orange plaster skin. Columns are adorned with calligraphy similar to embroidery found on the edges of the traditional “Tibeb” clothing, with the Amharic word for “wisdom” written in 18 languages to represent Ethiopia’s diversity of alphabets and peoples.
Transparent walls connect the main library to an outdoor “Knowledge Garden,” blurring the divide between indoor and outdoor spaces.
Costing a whopping 1.1 billion birr to construct, the 19,000 square meter library sits on a generously sized plot of land considering property prices in the capital, where a single square meter can fetch over half a million birr. In front of the library stretches a large green space where visitors can relax among the trees while taking in fresh air – a welcome respite in the urban center.
Young and old alike have embraced this new oasis as a popular place to read, bringing a new cultural vibrancy to what was once just a politically-focused square. The library also runs an innovative outreach program – helping incarcerated individuals to develop reading habits and access knowledge from behind bars.
Rotating selections are provided to different prisons across the city.
While kids, teenagers and students often spend whole days at Abrehot Library, the surrounding area lacks affordable cafe and restaurant options, according to observations.
Staffed by over 300 librarians and staff holding degrees and masters in Library Science, Abrehot Library’s team ensures smooth operations and quality patron services. The library is also developing artificial intelligence to award USD 30,000.
In three-months, over 10.7 million people have utilized Abrehot Library’s resources.
“Driven by our mission to serve as a guardian of knowledge, catalyst for learning, and cultural epicenter fostering creativity, Abrehot Library aims to become a global center of scholarship, education and cultural enrichment—setting the highest African standards of excellence,” Wubayehu Mamo (Eng.), Abrehot Library Director, told The Reporter.
Even though initiated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), Abrehot Library falls under the City Administration.
The library houses an extensive collection including over 300,000 local and 120,000 international research papers, one million printed books, 1.2 million e-books, and 100,000 journals and magazines.
“Our library houses collections catering to wide-ranging interests and disciplines. We provide varied resources for our patrons,” librarian Negede Cherenet told The Reporter. “One prized possession is the esteemed 14th-century manuscript ‘Kibre Negest’ (The Glory of Kings)—a rare manuscript holding historical and cultural value that we feel privileged to have as part of our collection and share it.”
However, critics stress the management should acquire rarer, antiquated books and manuscripts that enable exclusive research opportunities.
Explaining accessibility, Negede says “they strive to make knowledge accessible to all. Thus, we operate 18 hours daily—welcoming patrons from 2 AM to 8 PM. This allows individuals with varied schedules and commitments convenient utilization of our resources.”
Another Abrehot library management member emphasized that the focus lies in ensuring accessibility for all, including those with disabilities. “We aim to provide a space convenient and accommodating—offering resources and services tailored to individuals’ unique needs.”
The goal is to create an inclusive environment where everyone can access and benefit from our library’s offerings, Dereb says.
From April to July 2022, Abrehot Library launched the “Millions of Books for Millennium Generation” donation drive. This noble initiative garnered enthusiastic support from various organizations and individuals, including Book Aid International, Ethiopia Reads, and the Office of the Prime Minister.
The initial phase saw approximately 369,000 books collected from 77 government and public institutions and individuals. Abrehot plans to continue accepting donations to expand its collection.
Wubayehu highlighted Abrehot’s diverse educational and cultural programs. “We take pride in hosting workshops, seminars and lectures on many topics. We invite esteemed scholars, authors and artists from Ethiopia and beyond to share expertise with our community. These events not only foster intellectual discourse but also serves as a platform for cultural exchange.”
Regarding Abrehot’s impact on improving Addis Ababa’s reading habits, expert views differ.
Some criticize mismanagement and thefts. Sources say books are smuggled to black markets through library-affiliated people.
“There are rumors that books are looted from Abrehot – I’ve seen stamped books in people’s hands, suggesting disorganization,” noted renowned author Alemayehu Gelagay. “Unless you take your own book with you and read it there, there is no book available at Abrehot.
The Author says thefts should be probed to identify who removes and illegally sells the libraries books.
However, Wubayehu addressed allegations of smuggling head-on.
“Through donations, we received many books irrelevant to our collection. So, such books might be found in individuals hands, bearing the library’s stamp.”
“I am the only person who has access to the twelve doors of Abrehot. So I should be blamed if a single book is looted,” Wubayehu asserted.
Wubayehu decried gossip helps no one – people should contribute positively instead.”
The second criticism centers on donation and organization methods.
Alemayehu, who donates to libraries, noted, “The call for public donations brought duplicated, unnecessary books. But then the government did not organize the library properly.”
He emphasized, “This culture of donation alone isn’t sustainable. The government must allocate proper funding to purchase books of all kind.”
“Whenever libraries are built at kebele, school, prison or government levels, officials call for donations but allocate no budgets,” said Alemayehu. “Abrehot is beautifully constructed but empty inside.”
Whether it is for universities, schools or public libraries, the government must allocate budget to frequently buy and fill it with books.
“Buildings aren’t enough – funding must continuously purchase diverse collections.”
Alemayehu noted the Abrehot budget could have built two to three full community libraries instead. “Countries like the US, Russia and Canada fill provincial libraries through allocated budgets.”
Alemayehu prefers monetary donations to purchase tailored collections over material donations. “Donations bring unwanted duplicates.”
Wubayehu agrees, citing receiving 176,000 copies of one book as an example donation challenge.
The Author identified the lack of paper as a major barrier to Ethiopia’s reading culture.
“Skyrocketing paper prices drive up book costs, limiting what writers like me can publish affordably. If the government stabilized paper supplies, prices would fall and readership could grow,” Alemayehu explained.