In an interview this week with Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, Zein Abdel-Hadi, recently appointed head of the Egyptian National Library and Archives, laid out an ambitious plan to revamp Egypt’s National Library, restructure the country’s library system, and push for a long-awaited archives law.
According to Abdel-Hadi, the challenges currently facing Egypt’s National Library are tremendous, the first of which has to do with the fact that library management reports to the Ministry of Culture at a time when the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is linked directly to the president’s office. In this context, Abdel-Hadi explained that the National Library’s total budget amounted to LE60 million while the Bibliotheca receives three times this amount.
While the National Library’s funds are hardly enough for wages and manuscript restoration projects, the Bibliotheca is able to conduct cultural activities beyond the scope of a normal library.
Abdel-Hadi stressed that former library head Saber Arab had not been connected in any way with the now-defunct National Democratic Party of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, noting that this had led to a deterioration of relations with the former regime, which had begun treating the Bibliotheca as a replacement for the National Library.
“Our duty now is to revive the National Library’s role as an umbrella for all Egyptian libraries,” Abdel-Hadi said, noting that the library currently housed some four million books, 60,000 manuscripts and 100 million official documents – 25 million of which had already been digitised. Every year, the library absorbs approximately three million additional documents and some 100,000 new books, along with other periodicals, he added.
“It’s important that the library building be developed and that a direct link with cultural organisations is established as part of an overall cultural production plan,” said Abdel-Hadi.
“We plan to rename the library the ‘National Library of Egypt’,” Abdel-Hadi added, noting his intention to turn the library into a tourist destination and establish an institute to teach digitising techniques, manuscript restoration and documentation. He also proposed the launch of a library museum to display culture and heritage treasures, and the republication of old magazines and books.
“The security-focused mentality prevalent in Egypt has pushed people away from the library,” Abdel-Hadi said, referring to the surrounding neighbourhood of Bulaq in which public literacy rates are generally low. “We should build libraries in every part of Egypt… the bread should be mixed with letters.”
Translating a new bibliographic guide published this year by the Library of Congress is Abdel-Hadi’s next pet project, even if it will cost a fortune, he says.
“All this requires that we issue a new archives law, which has been delayed since 2000, and a new law to give the National Library the right to monitor all libraries in Egypt,” Abdel-Hadi explained. He went on to note that documents dating back to Egypt’s 1952 revolution and 1973 war were still out of the library’s hands, even though, according to the law, they should be published after a maximum of 75 years from their original dates.
“If it weren’t for the manuscripts law issued last March, we wouldn’t have been able to stop the sale of Naguib Mahfouz manuscripts that somehow turned up for sale at Sotheby’s auction house,” Abdel-Hadi said. “The law currently stipulates a fine of LE100,000 and two years’ imprisonment for the theft of original manuscripts. But if the value of certain manuscripts is as much as LE10 million, this law won’t deter thieves. Penalties should be proportionate to the value of stolen manuscripts.”
He went on to refer to some 300 cases raised by the organisation requesting that publishers and authors provide the library with copies of their writings, complaining that the law doesn’t stipulate any penalties in this regard. “We must raise awareness about this topic by combining all the laws governing publishing, archiving, manuscripts and copyrights in one volume,” he said. “And this should be distributed to universities, newspapers and publishing houses, so that everyone is aware of their rights.”
Roughly 100 NGOs in Egypt boast rare books collections, including the Geographic Society and the Egyptian Scientific Institute – and these all legally fall under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, not the library, Abdel-Hadi explained.
“The torching of the Egyptian Scientific Institute [in last month’s clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces] was intended to defame the revolutionaries,” said the library czar, adding that whoever was responsible had been fully aware of the institute’s cultural value. “I cried because some of those who tried to rescue the books were injured; their blood was spilt on the books themselves,” he recalled.
He went on to stress that state institutions would continue to function as the revolution continued.