Bibliotheca Alexandrina at 5: A Study in Contrasts

Article excerpt

The contrast is what strikes visitors first: the monumental new Bibliotheca Alexandrina versus street life, centuries of history organized and cataloged in an oasis that defies the chaos of traffic. Egypt's Library of Alexandria is performing a balancing act unique in the Middle East. Officially opened in 2002 after 25 years of planning (AL, Dec. 2002, p. 31), it serves as a local public library and as a world-class repository for research materials and databases, as many of them available in English as in Arabic.

Since its official opening, the BA (as staff call it) has established itself as a force to be reckoned with--as a partner with the Library of Congress in building a World Digital Library (AL, May, p. 31) and as a participant in the Internet Archive, a complete snapshot of all web pages on every website from 1996 to the present. And it is doing so on (or very near) the site of the ancient Library of Alexandria, once the most magnificent and comprehensive library in the world.

BA Chief Librarian Sohair Wastawy emphasizes that the library faces its share of "challenges," including the rise of conservative Islamic fundamentalism and a declining economy that fuels it. Opposition to censorship is part of the library's philosophy, she says, pointing to an exhibit mounted in May of movie posters from the 1950s to the 1970s featuring the flamboyant and bosomy Greek actress Melina Mercouri.

Training the BA library staff (234 of 1,800 employees) was an enormous challenge, says Wastawy. "I took people off the streets and made librarians out of them," she jokes. Egypt does not have a system of education for librarianship that is in any way adequate to prepare students for work at the BA, she explains, so it was up to her to set up training and ongoing staff development. Fortunately, she had a talented pool of locals and expats with bachelor's degrees from which to choose. Wastawy became the BA's chief librarian in 2004 (AL, June/July 2004, p. 39).

So well-trained are staff members now that at a recent workshop their major complaint was about the disconnect between the wealth of material and assistance they are prepared to offer and the meager expectations of the average patron, even though the majority of walk-in traffic comes from the university across the street. Staff members complained that their clients "don't ask the right questions," a manifestation of the fact that Egypt does not have a tradition and history of public library service that prepares them for anything as magnificent as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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Programming, especially for children, is one way the staff tries to educate the public about what they have a right to expect from a library. …