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Focus on Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt

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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 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/2011040613504943939_overview.pdf)
  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.

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