Library Of Alexandria A Symbol Of Egypt’s Efforts To Lead On Knowledge Access

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ALEXANDRIA – Dining on fresh fish beneath a golden sunset overlooking the Mediterranean beneath which lie the remains of the ancient Library of Alexandria, the conversation turns to the invention of written language. A light-hearted debate breaks out between an Egyptian and a Syrian over the origins of the first alphabet several thousand years ago, but is left for the time being when the Syrian asserts, “We invented the alphabet, you invented writing.”

Records show Egypt’s primary role in the development of written language as a way to disseminate ideas, and it is still advancing knowledge access, as evidenced by its world-class Library of Alexandria and several recent activities and publications. In some cases, library officials are out front on international policy issues related to access to knowledge.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The new Library of Alexandria – that is, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – is a showcase for activity on these topics, a grand series of supermodern edifices facing the sea and aiming to restore Egypt’s prowess in knowledge-related matters. The new library revitalises the ancient concept of being more than a 20th century-style book repository (“four walls and a bunch of books”), Chief Librarian Sohair Wastawy said in an interview with Intellectual Property Watch.

The ancient library was a “temple for muses and an academy” where scientists, poets and others could live, left alone to produce their work (with their families given housing on the edge of town). Euclid, Herodotus and Archimedes made humanity-changing achievements there, she said, and perhaps the new library will give rise to the next great breakthroughs.

The new library complex encompasses the world’s largest library reading room, space for 8 million books, and cutting-edge libraries for arts and multimedia, children, teenagers, and the visually impaired, plus rare books. The library buildings were designed by a Norwegian team with numerous architectural devices, including optical tricks and many references to ancient Egyptian style and symbolism. It also contains the Nobel section, a special reading room where scholars must sign in to keep the record of history.

So far, there are about one million books in the library, which has an elaborate fire protection system, a nod to the historic destruction of what was the greatest knowledge centre in ancient history. It also has numerous slots in the upper walls to absorb sound, designed to resemble the thousands of storage spaces that held the ancient scrolls.

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

But the library also is on the forefront of the 21st century move toward digitalisation of ideas and materials. Somewhat like a public library version of the Google Books Project, the library currently is scanning books on a three-shift, 24-hour a day non-stop basis, according to Wastawy, who was lured back to Egypt from her former post as dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology (US). The project already has scanned some 120,000 volumes, about 8 million pages, she said.

Another library project is to house the second copy of the Internet Archive, an ambitious San Francisco-based digital library project continuously collecting the world’s internet-based information. The library, opened in 2002, gets about a half-million users and about one million visitors each year.

The library is also helping to pioneer ways to address Egypt’s 40 percent illiteracy and high poverty rates, Wastawy said, by wide-ranging programmes for adults and children. One such project deployed around the city of Alexandria followed an idea from India to put computers on the street just for children (with smaller hands) on which they can read books. Kids take to the computers quickly, she said.

The library’s aim includes giving access to those discriminated against for their poverty and disability, she said. For instance, it offers a bookmobile technology that allows children to download and make their own copy of a book, which they can keep forever. This is not circumventing the law by not paying a royalty to publishers, she said, rather it is in keeping with “our role in society to be distributing information.” No budget could be big enough to cover that role, she said, and “we can’t be a library for the elite.”

In fact, the library “has become a platform for democracy,” Wastawy added, where “regular people” can voice their views and participate.

She took particular pride in a demonstration of the latest computer-based voice-recognition technologies for blind readers, moving them beyond braille text. “I know publishers are scared about making these things free to people with disabilities,” she said. “But not only do we have an information-rich and information-poor society, we also have a society divided along disabilities.” Visually impaired readers can only access a fraction of the books sighted people can access. Libraries should comply with access rules, she said, and must work around copyright to do so.

Other features of the library are a planetarium, art and antiquities museums, and 8 research centres, such as one promoting research in science and technology, and a variety of cultural events and courses. On a recent given day, events included: a concert by Omar Khairat, a hieroglyphic course for adults, a workshop of the Association of Agricultural Research Institutions in the Near East and North Africa, a movie screening, a book exchange fair, steering committee meetings of a local group, and a lecture on Mongolian culture and history, to be followed by “horizons of Sufism.”

The library is insulated from the whims of politicians as it was set up by law to report directly to the president’s office where it is highly prized.

The Library and Human Rights

The library is – or at least individuals within are – capable of taking positions on political issues. For instance, library General Counsel Dr. M. El-Said El-Dakkak in an interview raised human rights concerns related to trade agreements,

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

© Bibliotheca Alexandrina

intellectual property rights and production of medicines for neglected diseases primarily affecting developing countries. “Diseases don’t recognise borders,” he said.

El-Said said that several years ago at a conference in India he recognised that the imposition of patent protection on medicines was a new “kind of exploitation” of developing countries. He said the problem has not been studied deeply but rather has been limited to a “cry of protection.”

He also called for improvements in access to technology. On climate issues, he said transfer of technology “should not be limited to those that produce the pollution.”

El-Said proposed a conference between developed and developing countries to negotiate to modify rules in treaties that “were imposed by the stronger party” such as the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). “Otherwise,” he said, “at the end of the day, these treaties will collapse.”

A2K Toolkit Publication

Another recent development is the publication by the Library of Alexandria of an updated Access To Knowledge Toolkit, available here [pdf], covering a range of key topics.

The toolkit is “intended to showcase the achievements of the A2K movement up till now; highlight the barriers hindering its progress; envisage its future; and suggest the steps that need to be taken,” according to editor Hala Essalmawi, IPR officer at the Library of Alexandria.

Recent Events

Egypt also is often a focal point for major meetings and regional developments. For instance, it was the location for US President Obama’s regional reconciliation speech earlier this year, in what the US called the “New Beginning” for the US and Muslim countries. On 3 November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech on the initiative, including numerous references to issues such as science, technology, education, telecommunications, and innovation.

Separately, Sharm El Sheikh, a Red Sea resort town, is hosting the United Nations-led Internet Governance Forum from 15-18 November. The event, part of a series of talk-shops that arose from the 2003-2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), will broadly focus on managing critical internet resources; security, openness and privacy; access and diversity; internet governance and the WSIS principles; the way forward, including the continuation of the forum; emerging issues: and the impact of social networks. On the future of the forum, it seems likely that a recommendation to continue will be forthcoming, given that many of the participants have made a career out of participating in these events.

In addition, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the World Intellectual Property Organization co-organised a regional “African-Arab” seminar on “copyright limitations and exceptions: addressing the needs of affected constituencies” in Cairo on 2 November.

The conference brought together some leading figures on the issues, such as officials from WIPO and the World Trade Organization, and key proponents and opponents of a proposed WIPO treaty for the visually impaired currently under debate. Discussions focussed on limitations and exceptions for libraries, archives, museums, dissemination and use of copyrighted works for education and research, and the IP-related rights of persons with disabilities. WIPO said the event also served as a “preparatory exercise” for the African and Arab regions for the 14-18 December Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) meeting at WIPO.

Also, the library has moved into issues of access to microfinance, and participated last week in a conference on the topic.

And the library held events on 27 September to 1 October entitled, “Copyright Protection in the Digital Age” and “Intellectual Property Rights and Development.”

The events, attended by high-level judges, lawyers and others, addressed current topics such as IP and development, access to public health, licensing, open source issues, and free trade agreements in the region. The agenda included several regional speakers, such as Mohammed El Said, professor and author of “The Development of Intellectual Property Protection in the Arab World,” and outside speakers, including your correspondent, who spoke on the WIPO Development Agenda and on current developments in Geneva on public health policy. When he was not dining on fish.

William New may be reached at

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  1. Nuno Pires de Carvalho says

    In an annex to the Library there was the Museum, where the first state-sponsored research institue of Human history operated for almost four centuries. Some of the greatest inventors of the Humankind lived and worked in the premises of the Museum, such as Ctesibius (3rd century b.C.) and Hero (1st century a.D.). It is not a coincidence that Aristotles mentioned that Hippodamus, the architect who designed and conceived the city of Alexandria, established a mechanism of rewards for those who contributed with something useful for the public good of the city — this applied, of course, to the inventors in the Museum, who made significant contributions to the operation of temples and theatres. Even though, unlike in Mesopotomia, in pre-classical Egypt technical research and improvements were almost exclusively sponsored by the Government, the History of Ancient Egypt is full of examples of wonderful technical achievements made as a response to encouragement and rewards. Perhaps the greatest inventor of all times, Imhotep, the inventor of the technique of building pyramids, was rewarded with his inclusion in the Pantheon (several centuries after his death he was still venerated as a god in the Greek pantheon). It was not intellectual property law as we know it today, but Egypt also develepod some mechanisms of private appropriation of inventions. The ostrakons of Deir-el-Medina gradually reveal that some artisans were able to capture revenue from their technical improvements.
    If we read the History carefully, we find expressions of intellectual property since the dawn of civilization. Actually, IP is an instrument of civilization – it was born in Mesopotamia (the Code of Hammurabi has a “law” on IP — which is repeated in footnote 10 of the TRIPS Agreement [and this is not a coincidence!]); from Mesopotamia IP spread to the Hindus Valley and Egypt. From Egypt it moved to Greece and Rome. And from Rome, it came to Medieval Europe. The geographical expansion of IP accompanies the extension of the arms of the crescent moon that involved the Mediterranean Sea. And this was not a coincidence: IP has been a tool of spontaneous generation in all societies in which private business initiative prevailed (and that is why in China we cannot find many eruptions of private appropriation of commercial differentiating intangible assets).

    Now some self-serving advertisement: For those who are interested in knowing more about how patents and trademarks were born in Antiquity and how they developed from there into the Space Age (including the TRIPS Agreement, the Development Agenda, ACTA, etc), a book published in 2009 (in Brazil) (The structure of the Patent and Trademark Systems – Past, Present and Future), tells it all in 750 pages and 88 illustrations.

  2. Jeffrey A. Williams says

    I don’t know but do know that amongst the vast majority of archiologists and historians that neither Syria nor Egyptian civilizations “Invented
    language or the written form”. Such certainty of knowledge is hotly debated and remains an unsetteled matter, despite claims by social scientists of amature or professional status to the contrary in either Syria or Egypt. This clearly stated and largely recognized, the efforts by Egypt in promoting and advocating the dicimination of knowledge is of course laudable and should be significantly respected. Yet for many decades if not a few centiries, Egypt and syria were largely less than open and transparent regarding access to knowledge to the rest of the world, especially in the 20th and 19th centuries.


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