The (New) Library of Alexandria

Eight months must count as one of the longer breaks from blogging that hasn’t turned into a permanent break. 2009 has been a fairly tough year and I haven’t felt much like writing, or like I had much to say.

So I’m reinventing this as more of a personal blog, though maybe focusing on music and books and travel more than the day-to-day minutae of my life. I’ll still be mentioning library-related news that interests me, but it won’t be the main focus of the blog.

With that, I thought I’d post a few pictures from the Library of Alexandria, which I visited last month while holidaying in Egypt.

The library from across the harbour

The library from Fort Qaitbey across the harbour.

Library of Alexandria exterior

Outside the Library of Alexandria - Clouds reflected in infinity pool

Front of the library
Three Kiwi librarians at the Library of Alexandria
Three NZ librarians outside the library

The library (known as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina) is fascinating, a very impressive architectural project that is clearly intended to evoke the original Library – “dedicated to recapture the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original”, as the website says. As well as a large multi-lingual book collection, it contains museums with impressive collections of Egyptian antiquities (not as large or impressive as the huge museum in Cairo, but nonetheless very interesting). There are also art galleries/exhibitions, research centres, and even a copy of the entire internet. Yes, the Bibliotheca contains a mirror of the Internet Archive – apparently the only one in any library, worldwide.

The Internet Archive

The Internet. The whole thing.
Internet Archive sign

The library collection itself is housed over multiple staired floors, each without a ceiling, so that one can stand on the highest floor and look down to the bottom, like standing on the top of a pyramid.

Looking up, Library of Alexandria
Interior view looking upwards

The books are shelved by Dewey, which leads to some interesting problems. One of the more well-known flaws of DDC is in the 200s (Religion) class, where Christianity takes up almost the entirety of the class. As the Bibliotheca is in a Muslim country, it shouldn’t be a great surprise that books on Islam, which is allocated a solitary number in DDC,  predominate (to the point that 297 takes up probably 90% of the space allocated to the 200s).

Koranic interpretation - the flaws of DDC

A fraction of the shelves devoted to ‘Koranic interpretation’ (Dewey 297.1226).

The collection itself is also interesting, being multi-lingual but mainly Arabic and English. I can’t speak for the Arabic books, but the English collection left me curious about the collection development policies. Under the American literature section there are the usual suspects that one would expect in a research library – but also several shelves worth of Sweet Valley High books.

The American Literature section - Sweet Valley High

I got the impression that the collection had been built by donations as much as by a serious collection policy; a shame considering that a lot of money and design expertise had gone into the building itself.

I was pleased to see New Zealand represented, even if only a little – the NZ history section contained Michael King’s popular and acclaimed Penguin history of NZ; and a Claudia Orange book on the Treaty of Waitangi – both of which would be among my first choices for a NZ history collection. The only other book was a biography of [former Prime Minister] Helen Clark. I found a few examples of New Zealand literature – Patricia Grace seemed popular.
 Study area, with computers, Library of Alexandria

 Study section, with computers 

More of the 297 section

I have no idea how I took this picture, there aren’t really florescent lights in the sides of the shelves. This another part of the 297s.

All in all it was quite fascinating to see inside this brand new, internationally-focused library. It’s definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Alexandria. Unfortunately the entry fee (yes, really) means that poorer Alexandrians might find it difficult to access their own library. (4 Egyptian pounds is about £0.50/£.075; a significant sum where average wages are around $10/day).

About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
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