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Focus on Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

By Margaret Adolphus

The history of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The Library of Alexandria was one of the great wonders of the ancient world; its destruction one of the great tragedies.

Founded in the third century BC by the Ptolemies, during Egypt's Hellenistic period, the idea was to provide an international library comprising not only Greek works, but also those translated from other languages in the Middle East and even India.

At one point, it was believed to hold 500,000 manuscripts, many, according to legend, snatched from ships that arrived in Alexandria's harbour.

Then as now, the library was part of a cultural complex: it was next door to the Alexandrian Museum. The latter was not a museum in the modern sense, but a complex of beautifully laid out buildings and gardens that acted as a meeting place for scholars working on literature and science – an ancient research institute.

Both library and museum were destroyed in the third century AD, by civil war, and then finally on the order of Roman emperor Theodosius in AD391. However, in the words of Bibliotheca Alexandrina's (BA) current director,

"that great library was a unique ecumenical effort of the human intellect and imagination, and remains engraved in the memories of all scientists and intellectuals to this day".

The idea of recreating the ancient library goes back over a quarter of a century, and was originally proposed by a professor at Alexandria University, Mostafa El-Abbadi. The project was sponsored by the Egyptian Government, and supported by UNESCO.

In 2001, the building, costing $200 million, was completed, and officially opened on 16 October 2002. The library was designed to hold eight million volumes on seven levels, where each level represents the evolution of humanitarian intellect starting with religions, philosophy, etc. at the basement and ascending to more sophisticated sciences.

It was designed by a Norwegian architect, as a solar disc arising out of the water, and with a wall carrying representations of characters in all known scripts.

Photo: Aerial view of BA.

Aerial view of the newly constructed BA, showing its solar disc shape (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

Photo: Alphabet wall.

The wall with the alphabet scripts (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

More than a library

The new library, like its ancient counterpart, was intended as a cultural and knowledge complex rather than "just" a collection. Its mission is:

"to be a center of excellence for the production and dissemination of knowledge, and to be a place of dialogue and understanding between cultures and peoples" (see: http://www.bibalex.org/aboutus/mission_en.aspx).

It aspires to be:

  • The world's window on Egypt.
  • Egypt's window on the world.
  • A leading institution of the digital age.
  • A centre for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding.

One retired librarian (of a classics and theological library) had this to say of her visit to the library:

"Alexandria, the Egyptian city that most closely belongs to the Mediterranean world of Greece and Rome, was once more proudly displaying an attachment to learning, culture and impressive architecture."

Photo: General library.

The reading area at the main library building (photo © Eric Broug)

The sheer breadth and depth of what is contained within the cultural complex is staggering, and hard to take in. There is:

  • The library sector, described as "the heart and hub of the organization", and which comprises one general and six specialized libraries (including ones for children, young people, and the visually impaired).
  • Internet Archive.
  • Four museums, for antiquities, manuscripts, Sadat (dedicated to the late president) and the history of science.
  • Eight academic research centres, for Alexandria and the Mediterranean, calligraphy, manuscripts, The International School of Information Science, Hellenistic studies, as well as an arts centre, and the Center for Special Studies and Programs, which seeks out innovative and creative researchers through research grant programmes.
  • Other centres which use highly sophisticated interactive media for the exploration of science and culture.
  • Advanced data analysis facilities including a virtual reality environment called Virtual Immersive Science and Technology Applications, and number-crunching wonder Supercomputer.
  • 15 permanent exhibitions.
  • Places for meeting and discussion – a conference centre, and a dialogue forum to encourage discussion of issues affecting modern societies (for example, the Arab Reform Forum which grew out of the first Arab Reform Conference in 2004).

In addition, the BA acts as the "nerve centre" of many international and regional centres – for example, it is a regional centre for the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA).

Photo: The history of science museum.

The History of Science Museum, showing exhibits from the Pharaonic era till the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

The collection strategy as well as the overall thematic focus prioritizes the Ancient Library, Alexandria and Egypt, and then the Arab World, the Mediterranean and Africa.

There are a number of other themes which dominate the complex, however, notably science, children and youth, the Arts, digitization, and dialogue.

All, however, reflect the original library's values of the importance of knowledge, and of sharing that knowledge and developing understanding of and between different cultures. The focus on youth reflects the desire to invest in the next generation.

Financially, the mainstay of the library's support is through the Egyptian Government (which gave EGP 110,952,601 in 09/10), and through donations, which in the same period brought in EGP 17,793,278, 16 per cent of the Government grant.

Donations that come to the BA can be classified into three categories:

  1. Funded projects
  2. Initial donors – original contributors to the BA building are listed in the BA annual report: http://www.bibalex.org/attachments_en/Publications/Files/20110406135049…)
  3. Book donors – in addition to other valuable donations from numerous individuals and organizations, during the year 2010-2011 the major book donors were the Bibliothèque National de France (BNF) which has donated 500,000 books to the BA (the biggest book donation in history), Minnesota friends of the BA and Stanford University.

2010 saw the library, nearly a decade old, enter the second period of its development. When it reaches its tenth birthday, it hopes to have multiple locations in each city.

Science will be a big priority, with the launch of Science City in Cairo, the first large-scale science museum in Egypt, and the establishment of science outreach centres in 300 schools.

The library holdings

The Ancient Library of Alexandria aimed to hold, in manuscript or papyrus form, the whole of human knowledge. Such an undertaking would be impossible for any modern library. The difficulty for the BA, however, is that it is not just a research library, but one that the general public can use. For that reason, it has to have some coverage of all subjects.

Although its aim is to have a "well-rounded" scholarly collection, compromise is inevitable. It follows the American Library Association's (ALA) five levels of collection development, which are:

  • Level 5 – comprehensive, i.e. all significant works in whatever form, as special collections.
  • Level 4 – research, i.e. suitable for those carrying out independent research and writing dissertations.
  • Level 3 – study, i.e. suitable for undergraduate and graduate coursework.
  • Level 2 – basic, i.e. define the topic, and describe what is available elsewhere.
  • Level 1 – minimal, i.e. only very basic works.

There are a number of special collections, where the collection development policy is presumably comprehensive:

  • The Ancient Library of Alexandria.
  • The City of Alexandria (across the ages).
  • History of writing, and scripts.
  • History of science, and technology.
  • Biotechnology.
  • Development issues.
  • Understanding artistic expression and criticism.
  • Egyptology.

Thus the special collection development policy echoes the library's stated objective of being "the world's window on Egypt", with plenty of information on that country's past and present. It also dovetails with the other themes of its research centres, such as calligraphy, science and the arts.

In being thus strategically selective, the BA intentionally departs from its predecessor's aim of containing the whole of human knowledge (an aim which would in any case be impossible in the twenty-first century).

Its collection development policy (see http://www.bibalex.org/Libraries/Presentation/Static/15120.aspx) states that it seeks not only to build collections, but also to provide access to electronic resources, which sit on a remote server.

A digital library for the twenty-first century

To mirror the aims of the ancient library to be a "hub of human knowledge", this twenty-first century library must fully embrace the digital environment.

Digital librarianship has made great strides all over the world, with libraries facilitating access to their stock, both virtual and physical, well beyond their own physical walls. The BA, however, takes the concept to a whole new level, providing not only digital access to its own resources, but also the facility to manipulate knowledge itself.

Being a new library may raise difficulties when it comes to building up stock comparable to that of its peers, but it does have the advantage that the "e" can be incorporated into the initial specification, and not added on.

The International School of Information Science

From its inception, the BA established a very strong ICT infrastructure which allowed it to go far beyond the provision of an electronic catalogue and databases. It also has its own research and development institute, The International School of Information Science (ISIS, see http://www.bibalex.org/ISIS/frontend/home/home.aspx), which helps power its digital initiatives.

ISIS has a digital laboratory (Digilab) which has 120 staff working in shifts to digitize the library's assets. Not only can Digilab cope with a whole range of genres and formats – slides, negatives, books, manuscripts, pictures and maps – but it can also index, archive, and manage the workflow.

The Digital Assets Repository

The Digital Assets Repository (DAR – http://dar.bibalex.org/webpages/dar.jsf) was developed (it is now in version 3.0) as a system creating and maintaining the library's digital collections, and contains the largest collection of Arabic books in the world. The collection is interactive and the books are sharable over social media, depending on their copyright status.

It also houses many other collections such as L'art Arabe books, the Memory of Modern Egypt digital archive, the presidential archives, and the Suez Canal digital archive.

Screenshot: Digital Assets Repository.

Page from DAR, showing a digitized book, bibliographic details, and space for comments (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

Clearly all this needs large amounts of digital storage, and the BA has mass storage devices capable of holding up to 3.7 PB of data. It also supports researchers in other ways, such as offering higher than usual (for the area) bandwidth, allowing researchers from Egypt, Japan or the USA to simultaneously work online on live databases in Europe and elsewhere.

Virtual Immersive Science and Technology Applications (VISTA) also offers a powerful facility for data analysis: its VR simulation tool allows researchers to carry out experiments and therefore work out what variables they want to do their "true" experiment with in the more costly, and fragile, physical world.

Other projects include Science Supercourse, a global interactive repository of lectures (http://ssc.bibalex.org) featuring four fields of science (public health, computer engineering, agriculture and environment) and a high performance computing cluster (also known as Supercomputer) with the power to perform immense mathematical calculations, at 10 trillion operations per second.

The Supercomputer can be used in a range of disciplines including bioinformatics, data mining, physics simulation, weather forecasting, oil and underground exploration, astrophysics, and cloud computing.

Projects for children include one which enables them to print a book from digital pages, thereby being able to appreciate both print and digital media, and an Arabic mirror site for La Main á la Pâte (LAMAP), a French educational website promoting scientific investigation within the framework of primary school education.

Supporting social reform, and introducing individuals and groups, is Arab InfoMall, a portal which provides information on non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, and development.

ISIS engages in collaborative projects with other organizations – for example, it hosts the one and only mirror site for Internet Archive, the main offices for which are in California.

Other projects are aimed at the general public for entertainment, or perhaps more properly edutainment, such as, for example, the planetarium for science and astronomy, and the culturama, for culture and the natural world.

Photo: The planetarium.

Inside the planetarium (photo © Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

Conclusion

The huge cultural complex that is the BA provides both serious help for the researcher, and entertainment for the general public. It is both a great day out (2009-2010 saw 1.4 million visitors and over 700 events), and an indispensable port of call for researchers.

Yet for Egypt, as it struggles from dictatorship to reform and democracy, times are serious. Democracy is never more fragile than at birth, and demands a politically educated population.

The BA has been fully involved with the politicization process. Various departments provide workshops and other educational forums on political, legal and constitutional awareness, and communication skills.

Never was one of the key objectives of the library ancient and modern – to be a place of dialogue and understanding between cultures and peoples – more relevant, this time to the continued existence of Egypt. Dialogue begins at home, and the BA will surely continue to be at the heart of that process.