How the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Is Supporting the 2011 Egyptian Revolution
The steps of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina are symbolically covered with a massive Egyptian flag February 11 to demonstrate that the library belongs to the people. Photo by Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Libraries are social entities: They are established for society and are supported by society. Moreover, it’s been said by the American Library Association that “Libraries are the mind and soul of their communities, and librarians are the mind and soul of the library.” For this reason, libraries should keep pace with societal change.
In light of the tremendous societal, economic, and political changes brought about by Egypt’s 2011 revolution, I think that Egyptian libraries should be the mind and soul of the new Egyptian community. Fortunately, one of the Egyptian libraries that has taken the initiative to play such a role is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the modern reconstruction of antiquity’s Library of Alexandria) which has held numerous activities and events in support of the revolution following the popular uprising that began on January 25.
The ongoing Egyptian revolution has had many effects, both good and bad, on the Egyptian people. The bad effects included the shock of freedom and counterrevolutionary incidents. To support people in these circumstances, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the biggest public library in Egypt) has played an important role through a variety of activities and programs.
This article identifies the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s activities in support of the Egyptian community since the beginning of the revolution, evaluates these activities, and suggests recommendations for developing future activities. It is hoped that the article will provide a model for other Egyptian libraries to use in supporting the country’s citizens and serve as a springboard for discussion about the future role of librarianship, library management, and policy development in Egypt. It is based on interviews with Bibliotheca Alexandrina staff, the library’s website, and video recordings of the symposiums that are available online.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina is equipped with three big halls and a theater, which enable it to hold symposiums, conferences, and lectures simultaneously. Moreover, its general director has said that dialogue is the best means to promote development. As a result, the library held 18 symposiums in the first four months of 2011. Below are brief descriptions of some of the most significant ones.
“The Egyptian Constitution” (February 8). Ismail Serageldin, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, discussed the pros and cons of the British and other international constitutions, the history of the Egyptian constitution since 1919, and choices available for Egyptians when they change it.
“The 25th of January Revolution” (March 5). Mohammad Salim Al-Awa, head of the Egyptian Association for Culture and Dialogue, explained the revolution in detail and then talked about the requirements for safeguarding its achievements. A second symposium with the same title was held March 16, featuring Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
“Constitutional and Legitimacy Issues” (March 26). Mohammed Nour Farahat, professor of legal philosophy at Zagazig University, and Tahany El-Gebaly, Egypt’s first female judge, clarified the disadvantages of the current constitution, and emphasized the necessity for a new constitution.
“The Democracy Storm in the Arab Countries” (March 29). Sameh Seif El-Yazal, director of the Egyptian Institute for Strategic Studies, spoke on democratic transformations and current revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen.
“The Role of Youth in the Revolution” (April 1), featuring influential Muslim activist and television preacher Amr Khaled.
“Media and the 25th of January Revolution” (April 30). Ayman Al-Sayyad, editor of Weghat Nazar magazine, discussed how the Egyptian media covered the historic events.
On February 24 the library held a conference titled “Youth: The Revolution of Change,” at which 600 Arab young people from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and Algeria discussed the challenges facing Arab countries that are experiencing rebellion and people’s expectations once the revolutions are over.
Other activities at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina included three workshops: “The Revolutionary Parallel Writing,” led by the writer Iman El-Sebaey, in which participants wrote text about the 25th of January revolution that interacted with published works on previous revolutions; “Drafting the Mediterranean Sea,” where 20 authors and think-tank representatives from the Mediterranean basin exchanged ideas and experiences; and “Youth and the Environment,” for young people aged 13 to 17.
In addition, the library presented three lectures; held a party where Egyptian singer Hamza Namira performed religious and political songs; mounted a photo gallery devoted to the 25th of January revolution; and allocated an area at Civilizations Square, in front of the conference room, for a memorial to the martyrs of the revolution. Additionally, the library is working to document the revolution through images, videos, informal and official documents, and other materials.
All the activities were well-attended, even the symposium held on February 8, shortly after the popular uprising began. Most of the audience members were young men. The best-attended symposium was the one presented by Muslim activist and television preacher Amr Khaled, for which the large main hall was full, as were three other halls and a library theater, even though a fee was charged.
Except for Amr Khaled’s symposium, all the activities were free and open to all members of the public. Moreover, nearly all of the symposiums are available online, in video recordings offered through Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s webcast, for those who were unable to attend in person.
The activities were marketed in various ways: on the official website of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, through the library’s official Facebook group and Twitter account; and with brochures and posters placed both in the library entrance and at social clubs and cultural centers in Alexandria.
It is evident that Bibliotheca Alexandrina has been actively and effectively participating in Egyptian societal change during the revolution, with a wide range of beneficial activities featuring distinguished speakers and participants.
I feel Bibliotheca Alexandrina should continue its activities to support the development of Egyptian society, exploring subjects crucial to Egyptian society in the present phase of the revolution. Suggested topics for future symposiums include: lessons learned from the revolution for both children and youth; how to maintain the relations formed by the 25th of January revolution among Egyptian people, especially between Muslims and Christians; how to overcome unemployment among Egyptian youth after the revolution; and how Egyptians can rely on local resources to support economic development and pay off the country’s international debts.
The activities need to be supported with reading lists of materials selected from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s holdings. These lists should include information resources on the economy, politics, Islam, Islamic movements, human development, history (especially Arab and Islamic), geography, and the Arab world. The library’s website should market these reading lists alongside its other activities.
Bibliotheca Alexandrina should hold webinars to reach out to Egyptians who live outside Alexandria, and even outside of Egypt, to give them the chance to exchange ideas and get answers to their questions. Other Egyptian libraries should follow the example of Bibliotheca Alexandrina in supporting Egyptian society for the coming phase of the revolution.
AMANY ZAKARIA EL-RAMADY is on the faculty of the Library and Information Science Department at the University of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, and can be reached at amanyyy[at]hotmail.com.