17 - 23 October 2002
Issue No. 608
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Bibliographic referenceYesterday, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina officially opened its doors to the world, two millennia after the destruction of the ancient Alexandria Library. Nader Habib takes the occasion to remember a pioneer of modern Egyptian library science
Habib Salama was one of the first Egyptians to take seriously the dire need for the bibliographical reference of all scientific and literary works produced in Arabic. The periodical, 'Alem Al-Maktabat (Library World), which Salama both owned and edited.
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Clockwise from top: Habib Salama on his way to a book exhibition in Lebanon; Salama with the Ministry of Agriculture colleagues (third from left, back row); at his home study; with his daughter Salwa Habib, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, at the opening of the Library World exhibition in 1966; the cover page of the last issue of Library World; mentoring the younger generation; headquarters of Library World magazine
There was nothing of his background that should have led to his interest. Born in 1914 to a family of moderate means in the Darb Al- Ahmar district of Cairo, Salama grew up amidst a milieu of gold merchants and parents who believed in the virtues of profit. He also opened his eyes to a world seething with war. He was a child who suffered eye disease which left him with permanently impaired vision, a major obstacle to the realisation of his aspirations, namely the formal continuation of his education.
But then, fate rarely was on his side. At an early age, he was forced to join his brothers and other members of his family in his father's gold shop. But through grueling hours of work, Salama held on dearly to his love for books. At every opportunity, he would take the allowance his father gave to him, rush out from the gold and jewelry quarter where he lived and worked, and wind his way towards the bookstalls in the streets and alleyways surrounding Al-Azhar.
In 1927, following his graduation from primary school, Habib began work as a laboratory assistant in the Chemistry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture. He was 13 at the time. After another seven years of the combined strains of work and study, he completed secondary school, obtaining the baccalaureate. That same year, 1934, in recognition of his diligence and dedication at work, he was transferred to the Council of Cotton Research. Neither the demands of work, marriage at the age of 28, or the political and economic difficulties Egypt encountered at the time could divert him from his obsession with books and his desire to improve his command of English.
Salama built up a personal library whose entries covered the fields of literature, ancient history, biography, jahiliya poetry, the works of Ahmed Shawqi, A Thousand and One Nights, literary criticism, modern history and much more. These were his prize possessions, possessions that were as valuable to him as the gold shops were to his family.
In 1936 Salama took up an evening job with the weekly Al-Sabah. He also began helping his wife, Hikmat Mansour, edit the women's page in the same magazine and co- edited the women's page in another periodical, Majallati. These pages proved so popular that Salama began to entertain the idea of authoring books on women's issues, which were in very short supply in the Arabic language library. But, of more immediate and greater consequence was that, in this year, too, he founded the first institute in the Arab world dedicated to women's issues, as well as to research into beauty products. The Houri Institute for the Modern Woman, located in downtown Cairo, clearly answered a desperate need in society; within a year of its founding and in 1938, it received some 50,000 letters from women in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. These letters, in turn, helped guide the founder in producing its first publications: Beauty and the art of makeup for the modern woman (1937), Household stores: a letter on methods of preserving and storing foodstuffs (1938) and A dictionary of advice for the modern woman (1938).
In the next 10 years he embarked on an ambitious personal project, inspired by the difficulties he had encountered in translating scientific terms. It was during this time that he succeeded in compiling a dictionary of agriculture and botany, complete with illustrations, which he passed to 10 of the most prominent agronomists in the country for revision. Unfortunately, it was never published. In spite of his many attempts to bring it to the public, his project met its nemesis in the committees of the Supreme Council for Science. Still, this period brought some consolation. At the end of World War II he published his translation of Gordon and Waterfield's What happened to France? At work he was promoted to assistant secretary of the Council of Cotton Research. In the pursuit of his own interests, he studied management, with a special focus on library administration, since the Council of Cotton Research possessed a library in this field of expertise. But, to crown this period, in 1946, the Technological Research Organisation, with a membership of 500 of the most prominent scientists in Egypt, elected him secretary.
With the advent of the July Revolution in 1952 Salama obtained his diploma in psychology from the American University in Cairo -- with honours. This was quickly followed in 1954 with his licentiate -- cum laude -- in documentation and library sciences, following the presentation of his thesis on The establishment of a bibliographical centre in Egypt. In 1957, he received his masters degree -- again with honours -- for his thesis on the services a journalistic catalogue would bring to the press and history. He then applied for his doctorate in literature, with the thesis proposal, "Publication in Egypt from the beginning of the 20th century until 1965," which was to include a bibliography of all books published in Egypt from the revolution until the completion of his thesis.
By some miracle, this scholastic activity did not prevent Salama from taking on extra work connected to his government job. In 1951, he was appointed secretary of the Egyptian Library Association, in which capacity he won the commendation of the members of that association. In 1954, he was delegated to the Department of Information to lay the technical foundations for its cataloguing and retrieval system. Three years later, he was delegated to the library of Akhbar Al-Yom, where he created the first press catalogue in Egypt, and in that same year, he was appointed by the Supreme Council of Science to oversee its publications. On top of all this, he was an active participant in a number of philanthropic societies.
Meanwhile, he continued to rise in rank in the civil service. In 1963, he was appointed director of the Statistics and Scientific Documentation Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and in 1967 he became director of the Ministry of Agriculture libraries, in which position he remained until he died. In spite of the brevity of his service in this latter post, he spearheaded several important projects: a bibliography of literature on agriculture from the beginning of the 20th century, a survey of agricultural research studies in the various disciplines, a bibliography of the scientific periodicals in the Ministry of Agriculture libraries and the creation of a national agriculture library. He did not, however, live long enough to see all these projects reach fruition.
But it was Library World, released unto the market in 1958 that held place of pride. The magazine was the first specialised Arabic language journal of its kind and is considered to have launched a new era in modern library sciences in the Arab world. According to Habib, there had long been the need for a periodical to document cultural activity and technical progress in the field of publication and to furnish abstracts for new publications.
To Habib Salama, Library World was an ordained mission, a national duty. It was certainly not a profit- making venture; bringing it to light and sustaining its publication taxed his own pocket and his time and effort, but it was a price he paid cheerfully. It warranted the commentary of then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser who noted that the magazine "aims to acquaint the West with our oriental heritage and will be profoundly instrumental in presenting a correct idea of our cultural production and our scientific and technical resurgence".
Arab libraries, library administration, library services, what it means to be a librarian, the library and documentation society -- such is only a small sampling of the many subjects covered in Library World through investigative reports, interviews and briefs. In addition to its annual bibliography -- Arabic books in the year -- which was inaugurated in 1961 to document contemporaneous intellectual production in Egypt, the journal featured in-depth studies on the publishing highlights of the year, reports on international publishing houses, debates on the state of Arab writing and updates on book fairs, conferences and markets.
In 1966 Habib travelled to Europe to update himself on the advances of the field. Upon his return Habib staged the exhibition, "Library services and new directions in publication." The exhibit was mounted in the premises of Library World, today the site of Al-Ahram's third tower.
Habib died on 4 September 1969.
Letter from the Editor
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