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Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Phoenix or Turkey?

January 2001

     Sixteen hundred years ago, we are told, the greatest library of the classical world burned down. It has ever after been a subject of legend, idealized and lamented, but its true history is tantalizingly obscure. And now, in 2001, it is about to be resurrected after twelve years of construction. What could be a more intriguing story? One way to find out about it (as about almost anything else) is to look it up on the World Wide Web. There you will find the official website, "BIBLIOTHECA ALEXANDRINA: The Revival of the Library of Alexandria," a detailed but uncritical overview of the project. Lexis-Nexis (a great search tool available free from the Pollak Library to users of Titan Access) provides varied perspectives from the media that are more imaginative and interpretive--and rather disquieting.

     If "location, location, location" is the sine qua non of real estate value, then the site of the new Library of Alexandria is a unique and priceless asset. At the center of historic Hellenistic and Arab culture, at the intersection of three continents, in a city of rich cosmopolitan cultural traditions, it stands at the curving shoreline of the Mediterranean, between sea and city, near, and perhaps directly above, the site of the lost ancient library. The building is an immense 13-storey concrete cylinder encircled by a reflecting pool and a public plaza. The cylinder slopes six degrees from vertical away from the sea, and its lower five levels are underground. It is sheathed in 4,600 Aswan granite panels inscribed with characters from most of the world’s languages. But the dominant feature is the stupendous 520-foot circular roof, a multifaceted glass and aluminum disc angled 18 degrees from the horizontal sloping from ground level on the seaward side to over 100 feet on the city side.

     Both setting and design are daring in the extreme, far more challenging and intriguing than either the new British or French national libraries. A Norwegian firm, Snohetta Architects, won the design competition comprising 523 entries from 77 countries. Their building intentionally presents an image to be conjured with, to be understood in the Egyptian environments of both desert and seaside, and in the traditions of both Muslim and Western architecture. Its interior is exposed to the sky and the sea, yet insulated from the city's encroaching bustle. The slanting roof suggests the astronomical instruments of the Hellenistic world of 2,000 year ago, yet also a faceted microchip symbolizing today’s information. It hints of sunrise, a sundial, a compass, an observatory, a star map, an eye. Grounded in Africa, the library faces Europe. Rising from the past, it evokes the future.

     Reading area of LibraryWhat of the interior? Just as the vast glass roof defines the building externally, it determines the internal layout and ambiance. Its hundreds of variously-hued panels, described as self-cleaning, filter and moderate the Mediterranean sun. The eight above-ground floors -- a series of balconies or terraces resembling an amphitheatre -- all face the sea and sky. They constitute a reading room about as large as New York's Grand Central Station seating 1,800 readers, of whom 500 have computer ports. The Library's total floor area is 700,000 square feet, and it seats 3,500. There are 578 employees and seventeen elevators. Size is matched with opulence: the inner walls are marble, the floors are American white oak, and the furniture is hardwood from Norway. Within or immediately adjacent to the library will be conservation and restoration laboratories, museums of science, archaeology, and calligraphy, a conference hall, an exhibition hall, and a planetarium. Variously estimated, total costs have probably risen beyond $350 million.

     The breathtaking irony in all this is that books seem to have been something of an afterthought and an embarrassment. Although the ancient library was the largest depository of books (papyrus and vellum scrolls) in the classical period, its modern successor could not in this respect conceivably challenge the Library of Congress, the British Library, or the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand -- or, for that matter, any of the hundreds of long-established academic libraries of the world. Perhaps it should specialize in Pharaonic Egypt, or Greco-Roman culture, or Arab civilization, or early Christianity, or Eastern Mediterranean studies? Some choice or mix of these has been discussed, but none conclusively adopted. Possible reasons for such indecision -- or a result of it -- are that no head librarian has yet been appointed, that UNESCO's funds and aims as well as those of the Egyptian government are involved, and that the Egyptian preoccupation with politics, power and prestige have allowed little scope for librarianship.

     The new library must have, in addition to a specialization, a general collection of historical and contemporary world culture and information if it is to fulfill expectations as the leading library of the Arab world. Furthermore, it is committed to having a collection of 100,000 manuscripts to assert its historic link to the ancient institution. Uncertain, unrealistic, and shifting goals in collection development are bad enough for any library, but under the scrutiny of the world, with a budget only $5 million a year, choices have indeed been vexed. Hence donations are being solicited, stored, and picked over, a rather pathetic way to begin to stock so grand a building. Books have been arriving in increments, and are approaching 400,000, with eight million the goal. (Should one wish to contribute books or funds, there is a California Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Sacramento, and an American Friends group in Milwaukee.)

     But this points to a deeper irony. The scramble for books goes on while the electronic information revolution accelerates. Although the new library seems reasonably well-equipped for computer use by readers, and is introducing the advanced multi-purpose Virtua system, funding for software and maintenance is inadequate, and breakdowns in computer functions like book delivery that have plagued the new National Library of France are a concern. But the larger question remains: to what extent should the library invest in books, and to what extent in electronic technology? In a poor country, you apparently cannot have both.

     A further irony is looming. The growth in Egypt of militant Islamic radicalism is a desperate political problem for President Mubarak, who laid the foundation stone of the new library in 1988. Freedom of information, expression and research, and cultivation of rationality, diversity, and toleration, are fundamental ideals of modern libraries. But they are scorned and undermined by Mubarak's religious enemies, with whom we must nevertheless deal to stay in power. Can assurances be given that nothing will be allowed to compromise the new library's civilizing mission? That censorship will never be imposed? One thinks ruefully and forebodingly of the famous, probably apocryphal, story of Sultan Omar, who in the eighth century asked if the library's books were in agreement with the Koran: if they were, they should be burned as superfluous; if not, they should be burned as heretical. If the Bibliotheca Alexandrina survives its own architectural hubris and administrative muddle, it may still have to face the fanatical folly of some new Omar.

Albert R. Vogeler