Congress theme: “Libraries beyond libraries: Integration, Innovation and Information for all”

This is our Library, it belongs to our children

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Outside the Bibliotheca AlexandrinaAmidst the rumble of protestors and the thunder of revolution, a phrase whispered in the mind of the young security guard at the library in Alexandria, Egypt on 28 January, 2011.  He recited in his mind, “This is our library.  It belongs to our children.”

The guard’s fears were as big as the crowd marching in front of the library. The shouts of the mob grew louder as an angry throng drew nearer to the library’s front steps. The pattern of destruction had quickly been established: public and governmental buildings were becoming targets for looters, vandals, and angry mobs.

The revolution started on 25 January 2011 with peaceful and civilized demonstrations. Millions of citizens gathered from all economic and social backgrounds asking only for bread, freedom, and human dignity. Through social media the call spread to join the revolution that included every Egyptian – Muslims and  Christians; men and women;  the young and old; poor and  rich, the literate and illiterate; families and activists.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Masses of people peacefully gathered for days, protesting and struggling with police forces, while seeing their friends being severely injured or killed by the police. Despite the sacrifice, the protestors never gave up. The turning point came when the government disconnected the internet and dispersed the peaceful protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets.  Anger fueled the mobs which exploded with destructive force that surprised the government and its soldiers. 

As the sun set on the 28th of January, the army and civil police disappeared and vandals and looters replaced them. Police stations were burnt and more than 27,000 prisoners escaped from prisons. Many shops, malls and supermarkets were completely emptied and destroyed.  Huddled in their homes, people were attacked, women raped, and everyone was terrified as smoke rose from the cities.

What happened to the libraries?

School Library

Schools and cultural buildings

Due to the security hazards, some schools and cultural buildings were attacked and stolen.  Schools were closed during the revolution on January and February which allowed a number of criminals and escaped prisoners to use such buildings to hide.

Libraries associated with the Mubaraks

The people were blindly furious and removed Mubarak’s photos and name from libraries and other public buildings.  Looters mingled with raging people and attacked some buildings as though they were attacking the whole regime. Despite the efforts of rational demonstrators to prevent any destructive act, police stations and other public building as well as some libraries were attacked. 

Fortunately, only two libraries were destroyed:

  • Damage at the Al-Bahr Al-Azam Library in Giza El Bahr Al Azam Public Library A mob used Molotov cocktails to start fires and burn parts of the library. Almost 13,000 books survived and have now been stored at neighbors' houses; however, 19,000 volumes had been looted or burned. The building was beyond restoration.
  • Shoubra el Khima Public Library security, local committee members, and Egyptian police confronted vandals and prevented them from burning the library; sadly more than 1200 volumes had already been looted.

The Library of Alexandria (Bibliotheca Alexandrina – BA)

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is not just a public library; it is the heartbeat of ancient and modern Egyptian cultures.  When the police protecting the library withdrew on 28 January, no one had any hope that the library would survive the types of violent acts that were tearing down the institutions of Mubarak’s Egypt.

But, the Biblioteca Alexandrina belongs to the world as much as it belongs to Egypt. The Egyptians knew this. They understood the value of this modern treasure the same way citizens in Cairo knew to protect the Egyptian Museum.  This library is an institution that transcends politics. Because of the BA staff that left their homes and families to stand as a protective barrier to the onslaught of protestors thirsting for revenge the library was saved.  It was a difficult choice for many of us. Did we stay home and protect what we had or step out into a war zone and protect what the BA had—what belongs to the world. 

Internal security guards, BA staffers, community volunteers as well as some protestors ringed the grounds by linking arms and facing outward with only their calm and determined stance to fend off any invaders. While the angry crowd approached the library, the voice of the people spoke in the minds of those who stood strong to protect the BA.  It whispered “This is our Library.  It belongs to our children!”

Outside the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

At prayer time the staff and volunteers knelt to pray and the protestors joined in.  It was in this mutual act that the people remembered what the library was.  Just as the voice whispered in the mind of the brave young man that same message spread through the angry crowd and like a wave, people considered the immense value of this place, these people, and the resources that open the world to them.

Because this valuable resource was spared a violent end, it can now be a cornerstone for rebuilding the new Egypt.  The library will lead the movement to collect, organize, and make public the artifacts and evidences of this revolution.  Those standing arm in arm around this building have come to represent the new Egypt, where the diverse population appreciates that libraries are not just buildings with books.  Libraries are the gateways to knowledge and knowledge is the foundation of empowerment.