The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

By Jacques Tocatlian

The Library of Ancient Times.

As we know, the Ancient Library of Alexandria gathered within its walls the largest collection of scrolls ever assembled at the time and attracted scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, critics and poets from the Hellenistic world. It pioneered the concept of research as a collaborative effort and developed a tradition of testing theory by means of observation and experiment.

History tells us that it is in this Ancient Library that the circumference of the earth was calculated; the brain identified as the focus of intelligence and the function of the heart isolated; the natural sequence of disease proclaimed; the technique of map drawing developed; the continents and constallations mapped; the rules of syntax elaborated; and geometry systematized.

The Greek geographer Strabo described the Library as part of a richly decorated complex of buildings and gardens. The Library, was divided into departments; it contained ten large research halls, each devoted to a separate subject, botanical gardens, a zoo, dissecting rooms and an observatory. It also served as a copying shop, a publication office and a translation center. The whole environment was organized to facilitate discussion, research and reflection.

The Great Library was eventually distroyed after several centuries of existence. There are many theories about the causes of its disappearance. Some historians believe that it was partly lost to fire and partly destroyed by earthquakes; others blame Julius Ceasar, fanatical Christians, or ultrareligious Arabs, (see Mostafa El-Abbadi’s book The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, published by Unesco in 1990).

The Revival of an Idea

The revival of the Library of Alexandria, by the Egyptian government with the assistance of Unesco and the international community, is an attempt to transpose the ancient idea into modern terms and play an educational, cultural and scientific role throughout the region. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a public research library integrated within a complex of specialized libraries, museums, exhibition areas, educational centers, a planetarium, a library and information school and an international conference center. As such, it is a center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and undesrtanding. It is an Egyptian institution with an international dimension, under the auspices of a universal Council of Patrons and directed by an International Board of Trustees.

In his address at the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 16 October 2002, in front of 800 personalities, including heads of states, queens, ministers, Nobel-price winners, scientists, writers and artists, H.E. President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak emphasized the need for dialogue and cultural interactions as the main alternative to violence and tension – which is one of the functions of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The Role of Unesco

It is not surprising that Unesco, which was created to promote education, science, culture and sharing of knowledge was intimately associated with Egypt in turning the dream into reality. Some fifty years earlier, the greatest archaelogical campaign of all times was also achieved by Unesco on the very same land to save some 80 temples, including Abu Simbel and Philae.

Egypt requested the assitance of Unesco in the Revival of The Ancient Library of Alexandrie in 1986. As the Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services of Unesco at the time, I was very fortunate to be put in charge of the project. By the very fact that I was born in Alexandria, this assignment became for me an infinite source of stimulation, pride and satisfaction.

With the assistance of a number of international experts, we carried out the first phase of the Feasibility Study, a series of basic technical studies, prepared the Architectural Brief and organizd an international architectural competition The Director General of Unesco launched an international appeal for support.

The project was started off in Egypt under the auspices of President Hosny Mubarak. The University of Alexandria donated a site of 45000 square meters for the future Library, on the waterfront on the very location of the ancient Royal Palace , believed to be close to the probable site of the Ancient Library, On 26 June 1988, President Hosny Mubarak and the Director General of Unesco, layed the first stone of the Library. The project had moved fast and it had caught the interest and imagination of the international community. A large number of articles began to appear in the international press, officials from various countries approached Egypt and Unesco to express their interest, and institutions began to offer their assistance. The project had gained a great momentum.

The organization of the international architectural competition further promoted the project, internationally. Over 1300 architects from 77 countries registered; 524 entries were received and submitted to the International Jury composed of seven architects and two librarians.

It is interesting to recall that the Snohetta team from Norway, who won the competition was in itself international; its ten members who worked on this project originated from six countries. The team recognized that a great sensitivity was needed to succesfully complete the project. A high degree of group interaction was maintained and a great deal of reseach and reading was done. A special trip was made to Alexandria to investigate the atmosphere of this undertaking before beginning the actual design of the competition entry. Their effort was later crowned with success.

The bold Norwegian design had now to be implemented for which substantial funds were needed. An International Commission for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was set up with the participation of Chiefs of States and high level personalities. The meeting of the Commission took place in Aswan under the chairmanship of Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak from 11-12 February 1990. It was a great success from every point of view. The 18 members of the Commisssion signed the Aswan Declaration that endorsed the project and called for the international community to support and cooperate in the completion of the Library. The response to the appeal was immediate. A sum of US $64,000,000 was collected. The final cost of the Library was to be in the order of $ 220 millions.

Translation of a Design into Stone, Steel and Glass

In October 1990, a project agreement was signed by the Government of Egypt and Unesco setting up the institutional framework and the organs of the Project. Unesco appointed a Project Manager in February 1992, to oversee the building construction. A legislative structure was created in Egypt which made the Library an autonomous juridical entity tied directly to the President of the Republic.

Archaeological excavations on the site, which uncovered ruins of Roman villas and beautiful mosaics, delayed the tender action concerning the first phase of construction (the foundations and ground engineering works), which was eventually launched in 1994. Nine companies had pre-qualified from among 34 groups. On 15 May of that year, the contractor selected, Rodio/Trevi (Italy) – Arab Contractor (Egypt) Joint Venture, officially began Phase I.

Three hundred and fourteen thousand cubic yards of dirt were excavated. One thousand workers toiled day and night The construction work involved the most advanced technology available; the proximity of the sea demanded particular precautions to prevent any water infiltration. A waterproof wall, reinforced by an anti-earthquake system, was erected. It represented the largest circular continually reinforced diaphragm wall in the world, 160 m. in diameter. Six hundred and two bell bottom pillars were sunk 40 m. into the ground to support the weight of the building. Phase I was completed on 31 December 1995, at a cost of $59 million.

Phase II (structure, services, fit-out and external works) which followed was carried out by Balfour Beatty (UK) – Arab Contractors (Egypt) Joint Venture, at a cost of about $117 million.

The Building

If you happen to visit Alexandria in Egypt, you may be surprised to find on the sea-shore, along the row of old buildings, the bold, modern structure of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

As you examine it, you see a cylindrical structure, inclined towards the sea and partially submerged in a reflective pool of water. The sloping roof allows indirect daylight to enter the reading rooms. An Aswan granite wall, engraved with calligraphy, inscriptions and symbols from both past and present civilisations, is wrapped around the cylinder. Within the plaza, a large sphere houses a science museum and a planetarium. In the heart of the Library a space – 160 m. wide and 80 m. deep – creates a feeling of grandeur. The floor of this space terraces along 7 primary and 14 secondary levels which produce an impressive flowing space of cascading books. The book stacks extend behind each terrace, protected from light. In the Library prevails a luminous and serene atmosphere which incites study and reflection.

The Chairman of the Jury of the Architectural Competition, Mr. John Carl Warnecke, USA, in commenting on the design of the Library remarked that it is “ in the form of a circle, which becomes its predominant symbol… it expresses a basic continuity to man’s existence. The sun is a circle. The moon is often an emerging circle. The site of the Library looks out on the ancient harbor of Alexandria, which is in the form of a circle. The circular plan of the Library thus relates to all these elements. The circle is a symbol of unity and continuity that embraces the past, present and future… The cylindrical masonry form emerges from the earth like the rebirth of an earlier form.”

The Organization of the Library

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina consists of :

  1. The Main Library, which is a universal library designed to serve researchers and the public at large.
  2. The Taha Hussein Library for the blind and visually impaired.
  3. The Young People’s Library, conceived to orient 12-to-18 years old to all the services in the Main Library.
  4. The Children’s Library, geared towards children aged 6 to 12.
  5. The Audiovisual, Multimedia and Music Library which offers a selective collection of CD/DVD, audiocassetes, video tapes, records, slides and photos.
  6. The Microfilm Reading Room which contains a manuscript collection in Arabic, Turkish and Persian.
  7. The Rare Books Reading Room which offers rare books, facsimile prints, limited collections and dedicated books.

In addition, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina includes the Science Museum, the Calligraphy Museum, the Alexandrina Museum, the Archeological Museum, the International School of Information Studies, a multipurpose room, an exhibition area and the Conservation and Restoration Laboratory. On the same site are the Planetarium and the International Conference Center that can accomodate 3000 seats. In that sense the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina is not a simple library, but indeed the true revival of the ancient one.

The Library is wholly automated and possesses a computerized catalogue. The Library Information System was designed and installed by a French firm with the financial support of the French Government. The different departments are developing databases for the main disciplines covered The program of the International School of Information Studies was developed and the Restoration Laboratory to preserve rare books and manuscripts was established, with assistance form the Italian Government. Library Staff were trained in the latest software and library management software in the US and Europe.

The size and content of the collection is a very important aspect which has drawn the greatest attention of the Library Management. Collection development – which consists of the selection, evaluation, weeding, replacement, preservation, and retention of library materials to best support the mission of the Library – is managed in a modern and pragmatic way. Today, collection development increasingly entails the provision of information through a balance of acquisition and access. Access has become central to the ongoing process of maximizing the acquisitions budget while, at the same time, increasing the availability of resources to the library’s patrons. Print or multimedia resources are acquired traditionally or provided through some form of document delivery. Electronic resources are also either acquired or accessed to, by lease. This represents a significant shift from the historical emphasis on acquiring strong collections of print resources for long-term access and use. Less than ever can a library attempt to acquire all available materials across an extensive range of teaching and research areas, as the ancient Library of Alexandria once did. Times have changed. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s aim is to provide essential print and multimedia resources for teaching, learning, and intertainment as well as print research materials, on a selective basis, together with licensed and purchased access to remote electronic resources for all library users.

The Collection Development Policy of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is printed as a public document that describes existing collection strengths and future collecting activity in order to inform users, potential donors, and funding authorities of the principles that govern the selection and retention of library holdings and of the library’s collecting priorities.

It is important to emphasize that The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as part of the larger global community, considers Intellectual Freedom to be fundamental to its mission. The administration of the Bibliothrca Alexadrina adheres to the Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom of The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, IFLA. For instance, it supports, defends and promotes intellectual freedom as defined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights; it believes that human beings have a fundamental right to access expressions of knowledge, creative thought and intellectual activity; it believes that intellectual freedom is a core responsibility for the library and information profession.

The number of books in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is still small, fo the moment. The Library was designed to contain a maximum of 8 million books, compared with the national Library of France’s 12 million and the US Library of Congress’ 18 million. But, as mentioned earlier, acess to a large reservoir of information is secured. Among the precious possessions, one can cite , for example, a hand-written manuscript of the historian Al-Makrizi, copies of the Holy Quran written in Ottoman-style calligraphy, a copy of the first edition of the New Testament printed by Johans Gutenberg in 1456, ‘La Description de l’Egypte’organized by Napoleon during the French expedition in Egypt, and a manuscript of Sahid Muslim’s Anthology of prophet Muhammad’s Hadith. The Library also hosts important documents, maps, microfilms relevant to the Suez Canal, as well as an electronic record of 300 rare historical photographs featuring the phases of the Suez Canal construction. The Library also has a collection of rare coins and a gallery of historical paintings featuring the history of Alexandria. It has signed an agreement with the Egyptian Television that will provide to the Library a selection of its cultural and educational programs to gradually construct an important audio-visual archive collection (4000 hours/year).

The strategies applied for building up and enriching the collections include negotiations with specialized and private libraries in Egypt; contacts with monasteries and mosques concerning originals or copies of manuscripts; negotiations with museums around the world to obtain texts and reports of the pharaonic period; negotiations with specialized libraries in other countries to obtain Greek classical texts translated into Arabic and rare historical documents; preparation of agreements with foreign countries to establish exchange mechanisms; and establishing a collection of administrative, legal and cultural archives covering the history of Egypt and, in particular, that of Alexandria.

Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Librarian of Alexandria and Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is known to be an energetic and pragmatic intellectual. He began with a strategy that impressed many observers : obtaining an exemption from civil service and from purchasing rules so that the library can hire and fire at will, pay competitive salaries and buy what it needs without interference from Government authorities and customs. He created in the Library a team spirit and a profound commitment to excellence

In the short span of its existence, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has developed many programs, consolidated its institutional structure, further developped its Human Resources and trained its staff, sposonred activities in science, humanities and the arts, refined its mission and focus, issued several publications, and organized succesful international seminars to address concerns of the world community, such as the ethics of science and technology, freedom of expression, youth employment, and the role of science in education.

The Library also counts among its achievements the founding of seven specialized research institutes, the establishment of many museums, the addition of tens of thousands of books, and the organisation of scores of concerts, exhibitions, conferences, lectures, seminars, workshops and meetings. ( On the average per year: close to a million visitors, over 500 events, including 140 Concerts, 130 Movie shows, 110 Theatre presentations, 35 Plastic Arts exhibitions). The Annual Reports of the Library are an impressive record of achievements, to be consulted. In the words of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, Chair Board of Trustees “Rarely in the history of institution-building has so much been achieved in so little time by so few. Like the Ancient Library of Alexandria, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is becoming synonymous with diversity, culture, dialogue and learning; a place where minds meet and cultures flourish.”


This post reproduces material form the Collection Development of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as well as from a Chapter I contributed (Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Reborn from the Ashes of History) for the book Library and Information Systems: From Alexandria Heritage to Social Networking, Sarad Ranganathan Endowment for Library Science, Bangalore, 2009.

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