Egyptian Libraries Investigations Series: Who is protecting Egypt’s rare libraries?

Sayed Mahmoud, Mohammed Saad, Thursday 12 Jan 2012

The Egyptian National Library and Archives houses the oldest collection of Egyptian heritage, yet is currently only serving as a storage facility

National Library and Archives

Last month’s fire at The Egyptian Scientific Institute raised many questions among Egyptians. Namely, “What is the Egyptian Scientific Institute?” Many did not know the Institute even existed. Of the few who did, fewer still knew what it housed, why the contents were so valuable, and most importantly, why they were not protected. 

Ahram Online set out to raise awareness of the treasures in Egypt’s own backyard and how secure they really are, beginning with the country’s most significant library: the Egyptian National Library and Archives.

Established in 1870 under the name Kotob Khana (Books House), the National Library contains more than 4 million books, 600,000 manuscripts, 130,000 maps, 25 million historical documents and a rare set of audio recordings from the 1890s, making it the oldest and largest organization for books in Egypt. In addition, each year, between 50,000 to 70,000 new books and 2 to 3 million new documents enter the library’s storage.

These treasures are guarded by security personnel 24 hours a day, along with surveillance cameras positioned throughout the library’s interior and exterior. An advanced system can extinguish fire in seconds, and an electric fence lines the premises.

But herein lies the problem with most Egyptian libraries: these protective measures guard the valuables not only from theft, but also from visitors. The National Library functions as a mass storage area for books, instead of as a source of knowledge. 

Part of this dilemma lies in the security measures that have been implemented over the years restricting people from viewing these manuscripts. “This made people avoid the library; sometimes 17 signatures are needed to view one document,” explains Zein Abdel-Hadi, Chief of the National Library and Archives.

The newly appointed chief hopes to remove these restrictions but is aware of the obstacles he faces. Prior to viewing, any document related to the army or national security currently needs authorization from intelligence. Abdel-Hadi wants to draft a law that prevents security forces from intervening in the viewing of documents, and for these forces themselves to surrender their documents after the expiry period defined by the law.

He is also directing his efforts at another part of the problem: the enormous bureaucracy consisting of 2300 employees. “We had no strategy for the past 70 years. Now we need one,” says Abdel-Hadi, “The base would be developing this old bureaucracy by raising salaries and training employees.”

One of the major consequences of lacking a strategy over the past seven decades is the lack of integration of libraries as part of Egyptian culture. “Part of the problem is that most of our employees are technicians, not intellectuals, so we had no role in culture industry or developing knowledge on libraries,” says Abdel-Hadi.

“In short, I can say the National Library has not played its role. It left the Egyptian heritage scattered in other libraries without being documented, indexed and registered,” he adds.

This gulf has affected the National Library’s development, says Abdel-Hadi. “Our budget allowance is LE56 million, while Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s is about LE265 million, in addition to gifts and donations,” Abdel-Hadi explains.

“This has to change; the National library should be the central bank of knowledge to all the libraries in Egypt. We should involve culture industries and be a major partner in developing library sciences,” says Abdel-Hadi.

Abdel-Hadi plans to establish three institutes specializing in library sciences, expected to cost an estimated LE1 billion that he is trying to collect now. The first major project will be to redesign the current National Library and Archives building on the Nile at Boulaq Abul-Ela, where it has stood since the 1950s.

In addition, the National Library is currently working on a draft law that will give it access to all the libraries housing rare collections, for purposes of technical supervision, not management. In return the libraries will be able to register all of their collections in a database and digitize it for the public.

The new chief of the National Library and Archives has many ambitious plans for the future of Egypt’s history. Only time will tell whether they will materialise in the current atmosphere, where radical changes are not being received well by authorities.


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