A library with great expectations

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — It’s a collision of history and culture, where the sea crashes into the coast and Egypt’s storied past passes the baton on to its future. It’s a partnership of symbolism and functionality, a rare melting pot for Egypt’s stratified social structure.

Welcome to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, known in English as the Library of Alexandria, a throwback to the ancient library that stood, experts say, only a couple of hundred yards from the library’s modern incarnation.

The ancient library was among the most advanced centers of learning in the world. Mathematicians and philosophers like Eratosthenes and Euclid studied there while others made astronomic and biological discoveries.

But the building faced a slow demise, beginning with the 48 B.C. Alexandrian War and ending in the third century.

“The ancient Library of Alexandria defined libraries differently,” said chief librarian Sohair Wastawy. “The ancient library embodied learning: plays, poetry, writing.”

But seven years after its founding, the modern Library of Alexandra is struggling to find such a purpose for itself — to balance its role as a cultural center and a repository of written knowledge.

The idea for the library dates back to the 1980s when scholars from the University of Alexandria sketched a plan to re-create the ancient library, both physically and intellectually. By 1990, the Egyptian government had signed off on the idea, and a committee soon approved the design plan of then-unknown Norweigan architects from the firm Snohetta.

Together with an Egyptian team, the designers put together a plan for a building that would represent the library’s mission as a cultural hub in Egypt, with a conference center and planetarium on library grounds.

The library, according to their plans, would take the shape of a rising sun, set slightly underground with a pool of water in front of it. Part of the sphere is missing, because as Wastawy described it, “knowledge is never complete.”

The library cost $220 million to build, with $120 million fronted by the Egyptian government and another $100 million raised by Unesco.

In 2002, it opened its doors.

“The concept that died with the ancient Library of Alexandria,” said Wastawy, “is what we’ve resurrected because learning is not a one-dimensional thing. It’s called a library because of the ancient library, but it’s really a learning center.”

And so the library is home to far more than books: A resident orchestra holds regular concerts; the museum in the basement boasts artifacts representing the many epochs of Egyptian history; an art gallery showcases the work of Egyptian artists.

“The formal education system has deteriorated a lot in Egypt. So something had to be done,” said Hoda Elmikaty, director of the library's Planetarium Science Center.

But such a mission also has opened the library to criticism that in attempting to be a cultural center of the broadest kind, it has neglected its primary mission of hosting a vast and diverse book collection.

Indeed, the collection is only 650,000 volumes strong even though the stacks can hold up to 8 million books. By comparison, Harvard University's library system — the second largest in the United States behind the Library of Congress — holds 16 million volumes.

The Alexandria Library has a budget of about $17 million per year, with about $1.5 million dedicated to acquisitions. Because of the library’s ambitious set of programs, quickly building a collection has been a challenge.

But Wastawy said the size of the collection she oversees is just where it should be.

“Libraries are measured in hundreds of years,” she said. “What we have acquired in six years is about 100,000 volumes per year. Ask any librarian how they think we’re doing.”

These volumes, though primarily in the main stacks, are spread between various collections, including offerings for children, young adults and the blind.

Some have questioned the intellectual independence of the library since it's a state-funded operation, fearing the library will be forced to steer away from books criticizing the Egyptian government.

Almost a million and a half people visit the library annually, from dignitaries to tourists to university students. But until recently, few average people in the Alexandria community have taken advantage of this newfound cultural center.

In recent years, though, outreach programs, like those conducted by the Planetarium Science Center, have involved the surrounding city. Every year, the center hosts a science village where schools from across Egypt set up booths in the plaza outside the library. It has also bought a number of U.S.-produced Imax planetarium videos and has been working to translate them into Arabic to make them more broadly accessible

“We’re trying to have a positive impact,” Elmikaty said. “I see myself as a hub where I offer training and education to anyone who wants to get involved.”

The 120 world languages that are represented on a long wall near the library symbolize the its broad and ambitious mandate. Like everything in Egypt, building on this mandate has taken time. But despite the criticisms, the library can still claim to be among the leading intellectual centers in Egypt. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

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