Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 11 December 2002
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IT Feature
The Library of Alexandria Reopens
This brand-new institution claims an influential, ancient legacy
by Roger Bilboul

After some 1,600 years, the Library of Alexandria (now called Bibliotheca Alexandrina) has reopened in Egypt. Amid an unprecedented media blitz, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak inaugurated the new library on October 16. The presidents of France, Greece, and Italy as well as the queens of Spain and Jordan joined him for the occasion. Schools were shut for 3 days and public transportation was halted for the day. The celebrations continued for a month.

The Ancient Library

The new library (http://www.bibalex.org) is being projected into the modern world asa restatement of the ancient library's legacy. In the introduction to a book about the old library, Federico Mayor, former director general of UNESCO, said: "If the ancient Library of Alexandria has exercised such a hold on man's imagination down the ages and inspires such scholarly devotion to the unravelling of its mysteries, it is because of its unique representative value.... The Library seems to have been associated with the development of a heightened perception of knowledge as a tool, and of the quest for knowledge as a collaborative and syncretic process."

Indeed, the ancient library saw the light of day in 288 B.C., a time of explosive cultural and scientific developments in what was then the capital of the world. Not only was the library the largest in antiquity but it was also a crossroads for scholars from the whole of the Mediterranean region. The Ptolemies who ruled Egypt at the time were passionate about maintaining and expanding their cultural pre-eminence. They went to extraordinary lengths to develop the best and largest collection. They would, for example, search every ship unloading in Alexandria and seize any book they found to add to their collection. They borrowed important manuscripts from Athens, copiedthem, kept the original, and returned the copy, thus forfeiting the large deposits they paid.

The library served the greatest thinkers of the time, among them Euclid, Archimedes, and Herophilus, to name a few. For the large Hellenized Jewish population, the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek. This translation is claimed to be "the most valuable work in the history of all translations" and continues to be "indispensable to all biblical studies."

Controlling a collection of some 700,000 manuscripts called for groundbreaking developments in cataloging. A mere listing of the manuscripts and their authors, editors, provenance, and length was not sufficient. A subject categorization and critical analysis of the content were required. Enter Callimachus of Cyrene, a poet with encyclopedic knowledge who produced an extensive bibliography of all the library's holdings. Entries were arranged by subject and in alphabetical order by author name.

According to J. Harold Ellens (Archaeology Odyssey, May/June 1999): "Each entry recorded the name and birthplace of the author, the name of the author's father and teachers, the place and nature of the author's education, any nickname or pseudonym applied to the author, a short biography including a list of the author's works, a comment on their authenticity (that is, whether the works were really written by the author), the first line of the work specified, a brief digest of the volume, the source from which the book was acquired (such as the city where it was bought or the ship from which it was confiscated), the name of the former owner, [and] the name of the scholar who edited the text." Because of his gargantuan original work, Callimachus is rightly recognized as the "father of bibliography."

The New Library

About 100 yards from where the ancient library stood, Bibliotheca Alexandrina is an architectural tour de force that can easily hold its own among the top structures of our time. With such a thriving past and an impressive new building, the symbolism afforded by its opening has led to an outpouring of high-minded rhetoric that may detract from the institution's more reachable objectives.

The library "will make of Egypt one of the most influential states at the cultural level and will allow it to regain its pioneering role and its cultural equilibrium," said Khaled Azab, Bibliotheca Alexandrina's press attaché.

"I am very grateful for the trust that has been placed in me. This is a great historic responsibility. At a time when people are talking about a clash of civilizations, Egypt is presenting the world with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It is an amazing adventure," said Ismail Serageldin, the library's director.

President Mubarak describes the occasion as a "unique historical event which encourages us to talk about some noble human values.... Maintaining cultural dialogue and interaction is the only rational way to eliminate violence and tension...."

The project, which cost more than $200 million, drew financial support from around the world. Arab countries were the largest cash contributors. France offered substantiallogistical support and sponsored the library's Science Museum. UNESCO played a key role in backing the project and in organizing the architectural competition for the building's design. (Norwegian firm Snohetta was selected.)

Bibliotheca Alexandrina's complex consists of the library proper, a planetarium, and a conference center. The library building is an incomplete circle that represents the rising sun. A granite wall carrying the inscriptions of different languages and scripts surrounds it. The whole physical design bristles with symbolism.

Under the aegis of UNESCO, the institution developed a large network of international "friends of the library." Donations include book collections and various kinds of library equipment. The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) donated a mirror site for its archive as well as the equipment to operate its Internet Bookmobile.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina has many critics. They argue that a developing country such as Egypt could better spend its money on more basic needs. Others claim that although Egyptian censorship laws have been specifically eased for the new library, there have already been instances of bending to local sensitivities on religious and political matters. Some critics believe that the library's present collection of books and manuscripts is rather poor and is a far cry from its rated capacity.

In the turbulent Middle East, where large resources are often devoted to armaments and the building of extravagant palaces that serve few, the hope is that this magnificent library will somehow escape the stifling bureaucracy and narrow-mindedness that paralyze many other institutions in the area.

 

Roger Bilboul is Information Today, Inc.'s chairman of the board. His e-mail address is roger.bilboul@infotoday.com.

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