Archive for February 4th, 2011

Speaking of the Library of Alexandria … plus a new magazine, Big Read, and an ancient prophecy

Friday, February 4th, 2011
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Patrick Hunt brought Andrew Herkovic‘s article in Electrum to my attention (it’s here) and adds this comment about my recent Book Haven post: “Great idea about a librarian becoming president! Ismail Serageldin would be ideal.”  Ismail for president!

Electrum is a spanking new online magazine — launched in December — and Patrick is editor-in-chief.  I find its subtitle-cum-motto intriguing:  “Why the Past Matters.”

Serageldin for president. Please.

In the article, Andrew cites the vision statement of the library: “The Library of Alexandria seeks to recapture the spirit of the ancient Library of Alexandria and aspires to be: The world’s window on Egypt; Egypt’s window on the world; an instrument for rising to the challenges of the digital age; and, above all, a center for dialogue between peoples and civilizations.”

The library includes “a vast and complex suite of programs and facilities, including library-normal collections and services, four museums, exhibit spaces, information-technology R&D labs, the only external mirror site of the Internet Archive, cultural heritage programs and institutes, auditoria, a planetarium, publishing and grand open spaces.”

The stunning, multi-level main reading room of the library “plausibly claims it to be the largest reading room in the world.” Surprisingly, the library’s print collection has relied to a remarkable degree on donated books, in many languages and on many subjects.

The article is dated Dec. 15 — ancient history, given recent events in Egypt — and ends on an eerily prescient note, noting the problematic linkage between the library and the current political regime. He concludes:

“One wishes to believe that the brilliance of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as a center of learning, knowledge, and education will assure its transcending of politics. But it is closely associated with the Mubaraks, and to the extent that its modernism, internationalism, and essentially secular vision may elicit antagonism from now-repressed anti-modern or anti-Western elements, one hesitates to assume it will always enjoy its current immunity from the hurly-burly of politics. The first Library of Alexandria famously perished (a process that took centuries and a series of catastrophic events, not a single holocaust as usually imagined), and it is not impossible that its successor might meet the same tragic fate.”

Let’s hope that this doesn’t illustrate another instance of “Après moi, le déluge.”

Postscript:   By the by, the post two days ago elicited an interesting response from Felicia Knight on my Facebook page.  She was on Dana Gioia‘s NEA team back in 2008 for Big Read/Egypt, which she called “the trip of a lifetime.”  The project focused on The Thief and the Dogs by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.  We didn’t know Big Read had sunned itself in Egypt. You can read about that here, or in The Guardian here.