Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (349)

The Egyptian University The late 19th century witnessed the birth of the first modern Egyptian public library. In 1924 the Egyptian national university also opened its library to the general public. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * follows through the pages of Al-Ahram the discussion this news spurred on the history of the public library from its earliest beginnings in ancient Egypt to its classical Roman and European stages. Comparing modern Egyptian public libraries with their Western counterparts, however, left Egyptian librarians with a lot of improvements to hope for


Books for all

Until the introduction of the printing press in Egypt, book and manuscript collections were stored in mosques and, sometimes, the homes of wealthy citizens. The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt brought with it two marvels. The first was that wonderful, timesaving printing press, with the vast possibilities it offered to disseminate knowledge. Although the French forces took their press with them when they left Egypt, it left a lasting impression.

The second marvel was their novel system for storing books, the public library. Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti, the famous Egyptian historian and a contemporary of the French expedition, could not contain his excitement at this extraordinary boon for scholars. He writes, "Every day, two hours before noon, students take up seats in the anteroom adjacent to the stacks of books, on ranks of desks that have been arranged parallel to a long, wide counter. Whoever desires a reference work may request it from the archivist at the counter, who fetches it for them to peruse and consult. Should a Muslim wish to enter to take a look, they do not bar him from this place they prize so dearly. Quite to the contrary, they welcome him most heartily, particularly should they believe him to be astute, knowledgeable or curious, and they cheerfully bring out and display before him all different types of printed works containing various drawings and maps of the countries and regions of the world."

By the 1820s Egypt had a printing press of its own. Set up in premises in Bulaq, the wondrous invention churned out hundreds of copies of a single edition, work that had formerly taken copyists countless hours. Simultaneously, Egyptians sent on the first study missions abroad, during the reign of Mohamed Ali, could avail themselves of the great libraries of Europe, and descriptions of these scholastic edifices figured prominently in the chronicles of contemporary scholars, such as the eminent Sheikh Rifa'a El-Tahtawi's famous work Takhlis Al-Ibriz fi Talkhis Bariz..

As a result of these developments, the stage was set for adopting the modern library system in Egypt. The first landmark occurred seven years into the reign of the Khedive Ismail, when the lower floor of the Mustafa Fadel Palace at Darb Al-Gamamiz was converted into the first public library in Egyptian history. Mustafa Fadel Palace, at the time, served as the premises of the Ministry of Education. The new library that was established on these premises housed a collection of over 30,000 volumes.

A second turning point followed the establishment of the national university in 1908. According to contemporary reports, Egypt's first university was determined to develop a large and comprehensive library. Within a single year, it accumulated over 8,000 new acquisitions. However, access to the library, like the famous Al-Azhar library, was restricted to university students and staff.

But then, in 1924, Al-Ahram announced that the Egyptian University Library would open its doors to the general public. The news was heralded on 5 November of that year in an article on the university library and its history, sent to Al-Ahram by its chief librarian, Mohamed Reda. Following a brief discussion of the world's major libraries, Reda turns to the most important libraries in Africa. These were three: the Egyptian Library, which by the 1920s had a collection of over 105,000 volumes, the Cape Town Library with a collection of 100,000 and, finally, the Library of Algiers, with a collection of 71,000.

The Egyptian University Library, however, followed a close fourth. Housing a collection of over 63.000 volumes, it "rivals the Brussels Library in its acquisitions." In addition, "The Egyptian University Library was the first library to be founded in Egypt after the Egyptian Library. Our gratitude for this is due to His Majesty the King, who, when he was Chairman of the Board of the Egyptian University, was indefatigable in his quest to appeal to European and American universities and academies to bequest books. These institutes responded generously and continue to present our library with precious books and publications today. Now, the library is in the process of preparing the appropriate space and furnishings to open to the public, in fulfillment of the wishes of His Majesty the King."

This news generated great enthusiasm, an indication of which can be seen in the responses it generated among readers of Al-Ahram. The letters and articles that appeared in Al-Ahram on this subject offer tangible proof of the importance that Egyptians of the end of the first quarter of the 20th century attached to reading and acquiring books. Perhaps no development since has made as strong a contribution to the availability of knowledge. That is until the advent of today's information technology and, above all, the Internet.

Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti
Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti
Rifa'a El-Tahtawi
Rifa'a El-Tahtawi
To mark this occasion, Al-Ahram featured a series of articles entitled "Modern Libraries and their Contribution to the Development of Society." Curiously, the first of these articles bore the signature of the famous writer, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid, who at the time was the university rector. In fact, the author was Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid "the Younger," to which the newspaper amended the signature on the subsequent articles. Reading some of the articles one understands why the newspaper acted so quickly to sort out the confusion.

El-Sayyid "the Younger" did not find all well with the state of the libraries in Egypt at the time. In fact, their ills were many: "They are in total chaos. The books are not even arranged according to title or subject matter yet. The catalogues are in disarray. Little attention is paid to binding, and even less to rectifying the disorder. No guidance is offered to researchers. The lending system is riddled with flaws. In short, there is a lot of wasted time."

El-Sayyid reserved some of his harshest comments for Al-Azhar's library. For example, he remarked caustically, "Is it not ironic that the library of Al-Azhar -- with all this institution represents -- has no index cards. Instead, the titles are listed in little booklets like those which tramway urchins sell for a few millimes."

However, the much-vaunted Dar Al-Kutub at Bab Al-Khalq was also in for its share of criticism. The mother of Egyptian libraries was "one of a kind," he remarked. When one first enters it, one is thrilled by the intensity of the activity one observes among its staff and readers. However, "if you visit it for any length of time and pay close attention, you will realize that we are still an Oriental nation, deficient in the wherewithal of life, in the modes of civilised society, in the acquisition of knowledge and progress, unable to stir and awaken without an element of selfishness, egotism and vanity."

In an effort to rectify this situation, the young writer presented Al-Ahram with a series of articles on the history of libraries in Egypt and the world. "Imitation, emulation and adaptation are human instincts; were there people to strengthen them, they would flourish and bear fruit," he commented by way of introduction.

Indeed, at one phase in the growth of civilisations the process radiated from Egypt outwards. The Pharaoh Ramses I, he writes, founded the first library in the history of mankind. Ancient Egypt was not called "the mother of civilisation" for nothing he adds. Its priests were men of learning and science, and every temple complex housed a large collection of parchments. Similarly, ancient Egyptian wisdom survives till today on papyri.

The notion of a library spread from Egypt to the Hellenic world via the scholars who partook of the knowledge in the ancient Egyptian university at Ain Shams. Plato, Solon and Pythagoras "came to drink the sweet, effervescent waters of this font, and returned to their country, their spirits elated and minds enriched with the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians and their literary, political, social and intellectual lore."

Back in Greece, El-Sayyid writes, these scholars established the first public library in the world, some six hundred years BC. Eventually, these institutions proliferated throughout the Hellenic world. As he observes, "The government of Athens never prevented anyone from entering this golden market. Indeed, it encouraged it to extend branches to the various regional capitals. Thus, in Sparta, as in Athens and other cities, Greek libraries were founded to serve as lanterns casting off an illumination that kills ignorance."

In view of the fact that the Romans were great admirers of Greek culture, it is not surprising that they, too, built up great libraries. The young Egyptian scholar furnishes an extensive list of libraries and their locations and founders, suggesting that he was particularly awestruck by the Roman accomplishments in this domain. Under the Romans, he observes, credit for the spread of libraries is due more to individual initiative than to government efforts. The young Pliny, he tells us, donated an enormous sum of money to found a library in Como, and donated extensively towards the establishment of another library in Milan. Another Roman philanthropist established a library in Athens to replace the ancient library that had fallen into decay and disappeared. Yet a third founded a library in Izmir, and so on.

The typical Roman library, as El-Sayyid describes it, was a monumental semi-circular structure, comprising an expansive reading room that would be linked to the stacks by a tunnel. Visitors entering the building would be greeted by a statue, perhaps of one of the gods or the muses. Decorating the walls of the reading rooms were images of famous writers and their life stories. "It is generally believed that these images were either hung as pictures on the wall or engraved in relief," he adds. As for the books, they were stored in "cabinets made of precious, sumptuously engraved woods," and access to them was facilitated by "special numbered indexes." Evidently, the stature of a given Roman library was measured by the number of copyists who worked there. The great library at Constantinople, for example, had seven "who were at the librarians' every beck and call."

The author believes that Europe survived its "Dark Ages" largely because it preserved the ancient libraries it inherited from the Romans. In fact, suggests El-Sayyid, it was only through the preservation of some of the ancient Latin and Greek texts that medieval Europe could germinate the neo-classical awakening that characterised the intellectual climate of the Renaissance. Credit for preserving this core of knowledge was due largely to two major institutions: the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Papacy. For example, he says, Charlemagne had an English poet establish a library in his palace. However, since access to this library was restricted to denizens of the palace, the famous emperor had a second library established for the public in the city of Volda. El-Sayyid adds that Charlemagne "amassed a personal collection of invaluable works which he housed in two buildings. Although this collection was dissipated upon his death, his son, Louis I, managed to reassemble its remnants, which formed the core of a university library that thrived for a considerable period of time."

While the medieval Catholic church exercised a strong grip over scholastic activity and its resources, much depended upon the occupant of the Papal seat. According to El-Sayyid, historians generally agree that Pope Sylvester II, a graduate of the Arab universities in Andalusia, was the most avid book collector, who "spent towards this end vast sums."

At this point, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid "the Younger" turns the lectern over to the person who originally raised the subject of libraries in the pages of Al-Ahram -- Mohamed Reda -- who turns to a discussion of "Modern Libraries," as his articles to Al-Ahram were entitled.

Apparently the librarian of the Egyptian University Library had been to Great Britain and visited its libraries frequently, for his account suggests, in addition to great admiration for these institutions, considerable first-hand familiarity. He opens his discussion with the British Museum Library, "the most famous and largest library in the world with a collection of over 2,300,000 printed works and more than 56,000 manuscripts." Clearly, the British Museum Library dwarfed other libraries in the world, particularly when one calculated that with its periodicals its collection totaled in the neighborhood of five million items.

No discussion of the British Museum Library at the time could omit mention of Sir Anthony Panizzi, to whom is owed much of the credit for its rise to fame. When he assumed his position as chief librarian of this library, it contained no more than 240,000 volumes. In his 19 years as librarian Panizzi more than tripled its acquisitions. Many have observed that British monarchs generously rewarded the individuals who made important contributions to the government archive systems and to the major national libraries. Panizzi was no exception, having received a knighthood for his efforts on behalf of the British Museum Library. The honours conferred on such individuals in the UK contrasted markedly to the attitude towards their counterparts in Egypt where they were viewed as little more than archivists.

Mohamed Reda was very impressed by the lending system in the British Museum Library. Stationed in the centre of its grand reading room were "assistants especially trained to aid readers locate whatever reading matter they need." The room itself was very comfortably appointed, "although access is restricted to people of at least 21 years of age."

As a university librarian himself, Reda was naturally interested in the great British university libraries. The University of Cambridge Library, he informs us, dates to the beginning of the 15th century and has a collection of approximately 780,000 books. The London University Library, founded in 1836, had a collection of more than 120,000. Although the latter library was more recent and smaller, Reda pauses to describe it in some detail, giving the impression that he, personally, must have been a regular visitor and had developed a certain attachment to it. The library was comprised of several wings -- the General Library, the Edward Library and the Science Library, "which houses the works on the medical sciences." Each of these wings was fully equipped and staffed to assist students. He continues, "The reading rooms are open to all students from 9.00am to 5.00pm. Visitors must remain seated and must maintain absolute silence. It is prohibited to place one's paper on the books when taking notes, to rest one's arms on the books, to make any marks in the book, or to do anything whatsoever that the librarian thinks might deface or damage the books."

Reda then turns his attention across the Atlantic to the libraries in the US, where he counted more than 10,000 university, college and municipal libraries. The most formidable were the Washington DC and New York public libraries with collections of over two million volumes. The latter, he observed, counted among its acquisitions numerous private bequests and donations, including some invaluable rare maps and documents. He found this manifestation of American public spiritedness highly praiseworthy.

Back across the Atlantic to continental Europe, the Egyptian librarian noted that France had some 340 libraries with a collection between them of over 20 million books. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, he said, was the most famous library in the world, housing more than 4 million books, as well as 500,000 maps bound in 28,000 volumes, 110,000 manuscripts, "in addition to numerous classical Greek, Latin and Oriental works." The large public reading room of this library was "always crowded with visitors," and it contained two types of catalogues, one arranged according to author and the other according to subject.

If the libraries of Germany could not compare to the British Museum Library or the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, Reda found two worthy of mention. These were the Prussian National Library in Berlin, with acquisitions just over 1.5 million, and the Bavarian National Library in Munich with a smaller collection. Although Reda admits that he had never been able to visit these libraries, from the reading material they issued, he noted that "they are extremely well organised and, from the illustrations I was able to obtain, it is clear that they are housed in splendidly designed structures."

He continues, "I was awestruck by the size of their collections in all branches of literature, arts and the sciences, and I must confess to the readers that I deeply regret the paucity of such precious storehouses of books in our country. It is indeed a great sorrow that scholars and the merely inquisitive in our country cannot find a sufficiently well stocked library in the cities in which they live to help them in their inquiries."

This lament naturally led to an examination of the "defects" plaguing the libraries in Egypt and ways to remedy them. It is hardly surprising that lack of financing topped the list of defects. The fact that, as librarian, he must have been constantly beset by financial constraints makes his appeal more meaningful. Libraries are not directly profitable enterprises, he reminds his readers. Yet, "they constitute a philanthropic public service that requires constant and generous funding in order to enable the spread of knowledge." He adds, "It is preposterous, indeed unforgivable to find libraries devoid of the essential books, modern periodicals and major reference works."

The second flaw was insufficient attention to maintaining the condition of the books. On this subject, too, as one might expect, he speaks quite passionately. He writes, "The proper binding of books is vital to their preservation, as well as to their good appearance. Poor binding deforms and damages books and depreciates their value, for the binder, in his eagerness to save on leather, might cut off excessive portions of the paper, inclusive of portions of the text, maps or illustrations, and misspell the title of the book, particularly if it is in a European language. Such gross offenses are the product of negligence and ignorance of this craft, a phenomenon one would not find in books bound in Europe where this industry has reached the pinnacle of perfection in terms of the precision of the cutting, the excellence of the stitching, the quality of the leather, the elegance and accuracy of the embossing, and the immaculateness and taste exhibited in the final product."

A third major problem in the Egyptian libraries was the inadequate indexing system. "The more efficient the cataloguing system, the easier it is for researchers to locate what they are looking for and the more promptly can the library staff fetch the required works," he informs his readers. As a note of caution, he adds that a disorganised and confusing catalogue disheartens the public and "depreciates the value of the library in their esteem, as though it were no more than a warehouse for books."

To address these flaws, he urged a more stringent selection process of the officials who are put in charge of libraries. These officials must be highly qualified and "capable of pinpointing and implementing the necessary reforms." From his personal experience he could advise that "the librarian's task is arduous but essential and those who perform it properly render a great service to the cause of knowledge and humanity."

Nevertheless, he stressed that the job of even the most competent librarian could not be performed adequately without the cooperation of the public. He therefore urged all library visitors to respect the rules and regulations of the library, "regardless of their social, financial or academic status." The most frequent complaints of librarians were that readers "tamper or remove the book cards, mark up the books, crease and tear the pages and return the books long overdue." One suspects that had Mohamed Reda lived today he would have grieved to find that his pleas have remained unheeded.


Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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