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Past meets future in Alexandria library revival.

Past Meets Future in Alexandria Library Revival

The site of one of the most ancient libraries will soon be the site of one of the most modern, according to planners and designers of the Alexandria Library in Egypt. An international effort, sponsored by UNESCO and supported by the Egyptian government, is underway to revive Alexandria as an intellectual center of learning in science, arts, and culture through the creation of a very modern public research library and museum complex. Details of the project will be the subject of a presentation titled "The Revival of Alexandria Library: A Unique Project of the 21st Century," which will be given on Wednesday, May 8, 1991, as an added attraction for attendees of the National Online Meeting in New York. Dr. Shawky Salem, Technical Advisor to the project, and Dr. Zahran, Director of GOAL (General Organization for Alexandria Library) will give the presentation.


Alexandria, in Egypt, was one of the greatest cities in ancient times, and was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World--the Pharos Lighthouse. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Alexandria was also home for some seven centuries to one of the world's largest libraries containing some 30,000 books and 700,000 manuscripts on papyrus rolls. Because of its location at the confluence of Europe, Asia, and Africa, Alexandria was a melting pot for many different cultures and nationalities.

Although it was captured many times --by Romans, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, and more recently by the French and British--Alexandria remained a focus and meeting place for intellectuals and scholars. Ideas and beliefs from a large Jewish community mixed with those of Greek origin. Many of the world's thinkers of that epoch--Collimachus, Archimedes, Euclid, Theocrites, Eratosthanes, Ptolemy, Strabo, Apollonius, Hipparchus--were drawn to Alexandria because of the information and knowledge contained in its library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and a college or retreat called a Museum.

The city was for many centuries famous as a center for the study of astronomy, mathematics, geography, philology, antiquities, and literary criticism. The Alexandrian School became increasingly influential as Greek intellectual thought waned. The library itself was founded in 284 B.C. by Ptolemy Soter, the first king of Egypt, at the suggestion of Demetrius Phalereus who had seen public libraries in Athens. Ptolemy sent out a request to all the rulers of the world asking them to send him everything their scholars knew for his library. Demetrius was appointed superintendent of the library and set about collecting the literature of all nations--Jewish, Chaldean, Persian, Ethiopian, Egyptian, Greek and Latin. Archimedes' library was purchased, as was the Pergamus collection.

The various Ptolemys were very avid collectors. The Alexandria Codex (the Greek manuscript of the Bible) was kept there, as were the first scientific maps and astronomical charts. Records were also kept of the first scientific determination of the earth's circumference.

It is unfortunate indeed that the information that was collected and stored so carefully at Alexandria Library was lost so completely. Fragmentary evidence places the library, which had a profound effect on the culture and social atmosphere of Alexandria, near the harbor in the Royal Quarter district. In 48 B.C., Julius Caesar arrived at the seaport in pursuit of Pompey at a time of political struggle within Egypt. He deliberately set fire to his shipping fleet in the harbor as a military tactic, but the fire grew out of control, and the library burned. A sister institution, the museum, survived for some time afterwards, but scholars believe that it met its end as a result of a decree by the Emperor Theodosius, who ordered the destruction of all the temples in Alexandria in 391 A.D.

Future Plans

The first step in the reconstruction of the Alexandria Library was an international architectural competition for the design of the library. The brief was rigorous and detailed, specifying how the library should operate and that submissions should take into account accessibility, comfort, flexibility, compactness, extendibility, safety, security and efficiency. Nearly 1,400 and 524 entries were received from 77 countries. The results were announced at the end of September 1989 and the first prize of $60,000 was won by the Norwegian-led team, Snohetta Arkitekur, Landskap (comprising three Norwegians, one Austrian, and one American). Norwegians, one Austrian, and one American).

The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina will start off with some 200,000 new volumes and 1,500 journal titles in addition to material already gathered. The goal is not so much to construct the new library in the image of the old, but rather to give Alexandria back the glory it had in ancient times by creating a public research institution that will become famous throughout the Arabian and Mediterranean region (if not the world) for the quality of its services and the wealth of its resources.

These resources will eventually include some four million volumes (approximately one for every inhabitant of the city), a science and calligraphy museum, a planetarium, a music library, a center for the preservation of books and manuscripts, an international school for information studies (the only one of its kind in the Middle East and preparing students for advanced and specialized diplomas and doctorates), and state-of-the-art communications technology giving access to computer networks (such as Bitnet and Arpanet) and online information systems. There are to be over 2,000 workstations in the library.

The core collection will initially be in the humanities (a subject area lacking ings, and other objects d'art, providing filled, then attention will be paid to science and medicine. Even so, the main fields covered by the library collections will concentrate on Hellenistic antiquities and the Middle East, the marriage of Greek and Eygptian civilizations, the birth of Coptic Christianity and the influence of Islam and the history of science in antiquity.

New technology will be used not only to provide access to this information, but also to store and archive it, and to preserve and conserve ancient documents. There will be special sections and modern equipment for projecting films using microfiche, cassettes, videocassettes, videodiscs, compact discs, CD-ROM and so on. The library will be completely automated and the Online Public Catalog (OPAC) will be accessible not only from the library itself, but also from the various faculties of Alexandria University as well as other universities in the region. One of the aims of the library is to become the center of a bibliographic data network on all documents and publications available in the region.

The library will not just be a collection of rare books and maps, but will also be a center of cultural assimilation, containing exhibitions of engravings, paintings, and other objects d'art. providing poetry readings, historical and literary lectures, chamber music and the like. The establishment of a center for bibliographic data on all documents and publications available in the region is also seen as a major aim of the library.

The cost of the project is estimated at $160 million, of which the Egyptian government has already contributed $60 million in the form of land and the new conference center that will be adjacent to the library, Still needed is $60 million for the construction of the library and $40 million for books and equipment.

The U.S. Visit

In addition to the formal presentation mentioned at the outset of this story, a model of the new library will be on display in the exhibit hall at the National Online Meeting in New York, courtesy of the conference organizers, Drs. Zahran and Salem will be present to greet anyone interested in learning more about the project. Representatives of a group called "Friends of the Alexandria Library," which was established by the American Library Association will also be on hand to further the cause of the project.
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Title Annotation:Alexandria, Egypt
Publication:Information Today
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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