Over 200,000 librarians, archivists and information specialists in Egypt today can organise themselves via an official union. In the presence of Minister of Culture Shaker Abdel-Hamid and head of the National Library and Archives Zein Abdel-Hadi, who is also a librarian by profession, the founding conference of the new union was held at the National Library premises with representatives from the governorates of Monufiya, Daqahlia, Qena, Kafr El-Sheikh and others.
The effort that led up to this event was spearheaded by the March 7 Movement formed of young librarian graduates and students, the Coalition of Librarians that connected librarians from all over the country, and the Egyptian Association for Librarians that was the first body bringing together librarians, established in 1997.
The event was heavily attended by professors, students, workers and politicians working or interested in the field. Some 7,000 signatures were collected so far, and the draft law and statute was handed over to the minister to push it through the upcoming parliament.
The struggle to reach the threshold of today started in 1997 with the establishment of the Egyptian Association for Librarians. The board at the time aimed only to bring together specialists in the library, archive and information fields under one organisation. However, the general assembly of the association in 1998 initiated the idea of a syndicate, and in 1999, the first draft statute and regulations were shared with members of the association who became excited and immediately started lobbying the People’s Assembly to pass a law initiating the syndicate. In 2000, the law was put out for discussion; however, the parliament ended faster than the discussion, with the law passed over to the newly elected parliament in 2001.
In 2001 the draft law met approval among parliament's specialised committees except for two, the budget committee and the workers committee, leading to a struggle that continued for the next 10 years. Hope was renewed with the January 25 Revolution. “If it were not for the revolution, we would not have been able to sit together in this room and discuss this topic,” the spokesperson of the Coalition of Librarians told attendees at the inauguration event.
In total, there are some 17 departments of libraries and information spread throughout Egyptian universities, 13 of which offer postgraduate studies to PhD level. As explained by Atef Al-Sayed Kassem, professor in the Department of Libraries in the Faculty of Literature in Monufiya University north of Cairo, “There are in total around 22,000 school libraries, 1300 public libraries, 550 university libraries and 500 specialised libraries. All of which are served by individuals of different backgrounds, mostly without training in the field, and in many cases such an assignment is considered a punishment.”
One recent case was described in which freshly employed librarians were assigned to the administrative office in a school, while history teachers were assigned to manage the school library. “We’re only asking that the right jobs be given to the right people,” Kassem described, referring to the draft law that requests assignments to librarian positions be limited to holders of syndicate membership cards. Such membership is given directly to library studies graduates, or to other graduates provided they have five years of experience in libraries.
The main objectives of the union as summarised in its draft proposal: to organise workers in the profession and to defend their rights. “Our mandate in the profession is storing, protecting, and disseminating knowledge, and this requires that we push professionals to the posts of librarians throughout the country,” Kassem explained, continuing that one of the tasks put forward is to add one sentence to the Egyptian constitution, stating that access to reading is a right the state guarantees for all individuals without discrimination, “It’s not unusual to see huge libraries with expensive investments in some cities, while there isn’t even a small shelf of books in villages a few kilometres away.”
Despite the issues facing librarians, there is a rush on this vocation throughout Egyptian universities. During the 1970s and 1980s, a public post was guaranteed for library studies graduates. With the rush to work in the Gulf, the speciality came into high demand, given its basis in language. “We can only accept 100 students in some of these departments, and receive some 1000 applications, so we create certain requirements, such as knowledge of other languages, and sometimes even using interviews to filter students going in,” Kassem explained.
The next step is to complete collecting signatures from around the country and to start preparations for internal elections, aiming to bring forward some of the best leaders to move the whole project forward. Organising internally requires establishing a presence in every governorate, with boards and management. “We’re also linking with political parties, especially the Freedom and Justice Party, who had representatives attending the event, aiming to push the law through the parliament as soon as possible,” Kassem continued.
“A healthy relationship between public organisations, the private sector and civil society organisations is essential if we are to achieve any progress in the plans to revamp the entire sector of libraries,” Zein Abdel-Hadi told Ahram Online. “Our plans expand into all sectors of society: education, literacy, cultural projects and many others. Without a legal framework to organise workers, it will not be possible to mobilise them for the projects we’re about to embark on.”
The one-hour inaugural meeting was concluded with the call for another organisational meeting with two selected representatives from each of the active governorates, to plan efforts in the coming phase.
“We will not rest until this effort is completed, even if our demand isn’t granted through this parliament.” With this statement the spokesperson for the Association of Librarians concluded her speech, sending a message that things have changed, and that as well everyone, librarians will defend their their rights and will not be silenced anymore.