Libraries in disasters: Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Egyptian revolution

In January 2011 anti-government protests erupted across Egypt, some of which turned violent. While the focal point was Tahrir Square in Cairo, protests and civil unrest was seen in all major cities. Some libraries fell prey to looting and destruction, while others were fiercely protected by their communities.

In Alexandria the Bibliotheca Alexandrina holds the role of national library, as well as a modern embodiment of the historic Library of Alexandria. The library itself closed during the protests to protect the space, staff, and collection, but was also protected on the outside by the local community. A human chain formed around the library as protests erupted nearby. Those protecting the library were making a physical and symbolic statement about the value and importance of the library in turbulent times, and were an inspiration around the world.

In the immediate aftermath of the protests, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina held a variety of symposia on political topics. Rather than shy away from a controversial topic, the library actively encouraged political awareness and engagement amongst the community. As trusted sources of information, libraries in civil unrest can provide citizens with valuable information on their rights and political responsibilities.

Some questions you may wish to discuss with your partner:

  • Have you ever been in an area of civil unrest? Has your library ever had to respond to a situation like this?
  • Libraries are often government funded – how can they serve the needs of their community if their community is acting against the government?
  • What role do our professional ethics of freedom of access to information play when we are challenged by civil unrest?
  • How do you think you or your library would react in a situation of civil unrest? Does your library have a preparedness plan for these situations?

Special thanks go to the ILN Egypt Coordinator, Dr Amany Z. El Ramady, who provided source material for this post. Her contribution to this discussion has been very welcome.

Further reading on this topic:

-Alyson Dalby, ILN Program Coordinator

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 3.

4 Comments

  1. The role of libraries in times of trouble is one I have been thinking about for a long time and thus I am really glad to see this post. My pondering began when I first began working overseas (I am American) and grew when I was working in Oman and the National and Koranic libraries in Iraq were looted. My IB research class asked why would this happen and I did not have a good answer. That led to my researching the history of the destruction of libraries and a lively discussion with my students about the purpose of libraries and I ended up writing an article for Progressive Librarian called Libraries Burning: A Discussion to Be Shared (http://sarahpgibson.wordpress.com/about).

    Fast forward to 2011 when I was creating a library for the American School of Tripoli in Libya. We had just re-arranged the library, updated the catalog, and were really seeing it begin to be used when…Arab Spring unfolded. I actually lived in my library for six days before we were evacuated and, while I was of course concerned first and foremost for my family and colleagues, I did wonder when I locked the door behind me, what would happen to the library given the traditional history of library destruction in times of unrest.

    Many months later, we finally heard from a Libyan colleague that the buildings had been looted and the cars stolen but when she came to the door of the library she found it still locked and the area untouched!

    I do not claim to have answers as to why libraries have been destroyed throughout history or why this trend seems to be changing however, following the events with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, I believe that the rise of the internet and social media has perhaps resulted in people understanding the importance of information rather than being threatened by it as has traditionally been the case.

    A final note is that whenever I have traveled and worked (nine different countries) I have sought out librarians and generally have found them to be willing to share information even in restricted cultural situations. One of the reasons I belong to this network is because, after 14 years of international employment, I have come to believe that librarians are central to the process of open access and are role models for information sharing and thus are diplomats on a perhaps greater scale than government officials.

    Time will tell whether the above theories are correct and I am curious to know the thoughts and experiences of other librarians…

    Safe travels, Sarah P. Gibson

    (The Traveling Librarian: http://sarahpgibson.wordpress.com)

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  3. Hi Sarah, thank you so much for your amazing story. That must have been so hard to walk away from your library like that, wow. I am very pleased that you are safe and well and hope that your former colleagues are too.
    I am also a US expat (living in Sydney) and I agree with you 100%, librarians are so open and giving with their time, knowledge and experience. It is one of the things the ILN reminds me of every single day. We are run totally by an amazing team of volunteers from around the world. (go team ILN!) Most times all you need to do is ask and there’s a librarian offering help.
    -Amy (program coordinator ILN)

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