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Catch-up

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Tuesday/Wednesday 22-23 September 2009 Tuesday was a do-nothing day, essentially. The last (official) day of the Eid, so people were probably enjoying the free time they had left in ways they felt were most appropriate. I did some more apartment organizing and worked on the computer when I could get a connection—which was infrequent and inconsistent. I tried cooking my first meal here and met with indifferent success. I did a rice dish that turned out to be a sticky mass with little taste and left my appetite rather unsatisfied. Maybe I’ll improve with practice. On Tuesday, I had missed a call from Dr. Wostawy, the director of the library at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, so when I felt that the hour was decent on Wednesday, I called her cell and reached her in her office. I was somewhat surprised to find her there since I was under the impression that the library would be closed until Thursday. Dr. Wostawy disabused me of that idea and asked when I was planning to come in. “This morning,” I replied, doing some rapid mental calculations about time and tasks to be completed before I could leave. “I’ll be there in about an hour, if that suits your schedule.” Dr. Wostawy replied that there was little going on today at work since many of the staff had taken vacation time and were not planning on returning until Sunday. We arranged that I would call her again when I reached the library. Breakfast dishes quickly washed and put away, the bed made, the thermal curtain drawn to keep out the afternoon sun—it comes straight in the big windows that open onto the balcony and makes the living room into an oven if I don’t do that—dress and get out the door. The doorman greets me and I tell him I’m off to work. I ask if the fare from here to the library really is only five guineas (ca. $1) and he says yes. Okay. I walk to the main intersection half a block away and get a yellow and black cab. I give the driver the address and we set off. The drive is longer than I remember, about ten minutes at 40 MPH on the Corniche. Traffic is relatively light and we zip along, the sea a fresh aqua color on the right. I can see three or four container ships on the horizon. We swing around a roundabout and I get dropped off right in front of the library building. I phone Dr. Wostawy and she sends Amr down to fetch me from the security checkpoint. I ask him how his Eid was and he says, “Great,” Up the elevator and along several corridors (the place is a maze, particularly when you’re away from the public areas, but not as bad as the San Stefano Mall; I lost my way in that place!) until we reach familiar ground and we’re at Dr. Wostawy’s office door. Amr knocks and we walk right in. After shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries for a while (this part of doing business in Egypt takes a long time to master: just how much small talk is enough? When is it too much? What subjects are okay to talks about?) Fortunately, Dr. Wostawy (Sohair from now on…) spent a lot of time in the States, first as a student and then as a librarian and library director, so she has developed a tolerance for neophytes. Especially American neophytes. After about ten minutes, there’s a knock at the door and a man bearing a tray comes in. A cup of coffee is set in front of me (Amr had thoughtfully taken my order on our way to the office) and this seems to be the signal to get down to business. Sohair begins the substantive part of our discussion with a brief history of the library. She was called back to Egypt to run the library part of the Bibliotheca organization five years ago and has been working at the job ever since then. She was asked to take up the position because there are few properly trained librarians in Egypt, and those one does find are not trained to American or European standards. This is not to say that they are not dedicated or hard working; they just don’t have the skill levels necessary to function in an organization of this size or complexity. Or at least they didn’t until Sohair came into the picture. The first thing she did when she arrived was to set certain requirements and conditions on employment. Now all those hired must, for example, achieve a score of 500 or better on the TOEFL (English as a foreign language test). She also has obligatory periodic training workshops and has developed a curriculum of librarianship courses at the “technical-professional” level to aid the staff in improving skills in particular areas. For this, she has drawn on a very successful and apparently well-known program offered at Du Page College in Chicago. It is a testament to her success that Bibliotheca Alexandrina is now a contributor to the VIAF (Virtual International Authority File), joining such prestigious institutions as the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheque National of France, the Staatsbibliothek of Germany and the like in the project. This initiative is part of the so-called “semantic web” one of whose primary functions is to allow anyone in any part of the world working in his or her native language to access authoritative data in that person’s language. The purpose of this is to eliminate duplication of effort and to create a common data file for entities responsible for works of scholarship and literature. At this point, the effort is limited to personal names, but as time goes on, it will be expanded to include “corporate” entities as well. Sohair gives me a copy of the library’s collection development policy, which I will have to read before out next meeting, since this is one of the areas in which I have agreed to work with the Alexandria librarians. As we are talking, there is yet another knock at the door and I meet yet another colleague. Yahya Zaki, a medical doctor and administrator at the Bibliotheca, enters and we are introduced. He and Sohair are old friends, she tells me, and we all go through the small talk ritual once again. Finally, Dr, Zaki gets to the point. He has come to try to get Sohair interested in publishing an adolescent book about Alexandria. A student whom the doctor knows came to him with the idea and he apparently wants the library to consider publishing it. They talk about that for a while, but before we can get back to my business, there is yet another knock at the door and two young people, one male, one female, come in and Sohair begins to conduct business with them. When they leave, she tells me that these two—the guy is from Germany; the woman is Egyptian (I think)—are developing some sort of training program for the librarians. It is obvious that she has a LOT going on here. When these last visitors leave, she explains that she spends a great deal of her time arranging for librarians from other parts of the world to come to Egypt for varying periods of time to train her people because the MLS program in Cairo isn’t worth much. Until very recently, it was a BA degree. Sohair finally got the university to drop the program and re-institute it as a master’s degree. It will still take some time for the changes to take effect and until then, it’s going to be a long haul for those in the profession. Of course, there are other aspects to the problem of librarianship in Egypt. One is social: there is no (or very little) library culture in Egypt.People are not in the habit of visiting or supporting public libraries. There are libraries at the universities, of course. Cairo University has a brand new central library, but public libraries are few and far between, and Egyptians are not accustomed to visiting them for information. That is changing slowly. Sohair told me that she knew the Bibliotheca was going to be a success when her staff began to report that Alexandrian housewives (her term; not mine) were coming in to the library frequently and repeatedly. The second issue is more of a global financial problem: those Egyptian students who might be interested in librarianship as a profession and who go abroad for their training seldom if ever return because the pay and standard of living in Egypt—and in Alexandria in particular—is less than ideal. With a knowledge of Arabic, they find their skills much more in demand in Europe or the United States. This is a trend of long standing; I have any number of colleagues in the Middle East Librarians Association who left their native countries as young students, became librarians, and stayed in the States (or in Canada or Europe) because they were appreciated more—and were more employable—there than at home. This aspect of the librarianship problem is less tractable even than the social issue, I think. In this climate, Sohair has had to rely to a great extent on imported talent, not so much to do the actual work, but to bring her own people up to speed in the procedural and technical areas so that they can do the work. She recounted one instance of this: the library had been given a small collection of works in Korean. It remained uncatalogued for quite a while because there were no Egyptians, librarians or otherwise, who could read Korean and create the necessary bibliographic records. She finally negotiated with the Korean government to send her a Korean librarian who did the work. She got help in another area from the German government and managed to get the person there on the Germans’ nickel! Something tells me that I never want to be seated across from this woman at a negotiating table… There are also administrative issues which are beyond the library’s control. Since the Bibliotheca is a (quasi-?) governmental agency, acquisition is a nightmare. Acquisitions has to get three price quotes on each item before they can purchase it. That must slow things down incredibly! I asked her if there was an Egyptian Library Association; she scoffed and gave a dismissive toss of her hand. “Worthless,” she pronounced. They apparently are not very active nor effective and so do not provide much in the way of professional support or political clout. There is a super-national organization of librarians in the Arabic-speaking countries but that organization, too, is not very effective. The library collects in seven different areas and each is collected at ACRL level three or above, although she acknowledges that there are areas of weakness. That means that each area is a serious research collection, but none of the librarians working in collection development is a scholar in that area, so again, there is a problem with the skill level among staff. It will be interesting to see how we might address this issue over the next four months. We also talked a bit about information literacy, but Sohair said that that area was really the responsibility of one of her staff members and that I would be better served speaking to that person about it. Our interview came to an end and we agreed that since most of the staff would not be returning to work until Sunday, that I take the next couple of days to study the collection development policy and to begin to think about what I wanted to do. I told her I was there to learn as much if not more than I might teach. She proposed a relatively light schedule for the time being. “Go take an excursion,” she advised. We said goodbye and I was escorted to my next appointment by Manar Badr, the Head of Reference Services. We went down several levels to the collection development offices and got acquainted along the way. Her English was very good and she seemed comfortable speaking so I let her proceed. She noted that my name was “very German.” I told her that that was part of my heritage and asked if she spoke German. “Yes,” she replid. “It’s my mother tongue.” Oh, things get stranger and stranger… She led me to her office where I filled out some paperwork for my ID card, office keys and so forth. We then proceeded next door to the office of the Head of Public Services, a woman in hijab, but with her face uncovered, whose name was Omnia Fathallah. We shook hands (she initiated this so I shook hands; otherwise the proper greeting would have been to put my right hand over my heart and make a slight bow). We talked for a bit about her area and indicated that I would be working primarily with the staff in her division. She was very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. I told her that we would probably begin on Sunday, according to Sohair’s plan and she said that that was agreeable to her. We said goodbye and Manar then showed me the way to my office, introducing me to one of the reference librarians on my level of the building as we passed by. I had mentioned to Manar that one of the people in the art section of the library, Gamal Husni, had wanted me to get in touch with him. Somehow he had heard that I was coming and he wanted to meet me since he had been a Fulbrighter in the States some time ago. Manar helped me find his office and left me in his care. We talked about his work and mine and I mentioned my study of block printing. He was very interested in the phenomenon because of the cultural implications and I told him that I would try to get a copy of my book for the library so that he might see it. I also told him that I was hoping to be able to see the few examples of block printing held in Egypt. He asked which museums had them and I gave him a couple of the locations. Since I had heard that getting to see individual items might be a problem in Egypt, especially for foreigners, I asked him if he might be able to help. “No,” he said, “but my uncle is the Minister of Culture.” Oh! My lucky day! This, of course is the guy who was being considered for the position of the head of UNESCO (it has since gone to a Bulgarian) and Gamal said that maybe, once the dust settles, he might be able to put in a word. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. That about wrapped up my business for the day so I thanked him for his time, said goodbye, and headed for the exit. Outside I flagged down a taxi and gave him the name of the street where I wanted to be dropped off. Reaching my destination, I realized I didn’t have anything smaller than a ten pound note. I handed that to the driver and asked for change. “Nope. Don’t have any.” Right. Thanks. Still cheap, but it’s the principle. Oh well. Back home. The usual ritual with the doorman, upstairs to change, and then out for a quick visit to the grocery store. Yesterday, I happened to notice a grocery much closer to my apartment building and decided to check it out. Not as big as the one I’ve been going to but it had some items that the other one didn’t so I bought a few things. A hot meal, a little computer work, some reading and then lights out.

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