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Paper or Binary? Hmmmm…

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.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Up and out the door at 8:15 or so in order to be at the library in time for my 9 AM meeting with the collection development people. According to the schedule slipped under my office door the previous day, we were supposed to talk about how the Bibliotheca Alexandrina might deal with the issue of electronic resources, particularly electronic periodicals, and whether they should go digital or continue to carry print subscriptions to journals.

In addition to Nermin Bahaa, who heads this section, those in attendance included Eiman El-Noshokaty, the Electronic Resources Coordinator, Shirine Kader, the Serials Manager, and Shirine Eid, who does collection development for reference. Eiman began the meeting by giving me an overview of what her role in the collection development enterprise was. She, like each of the heads of section or units I had met with so far, had a PowerPoint presentation on her desktop. Using the graphics and text in her presentation, Eiman proceeded to tell me about her work and how it fit into the collection development process. More to the point, she, as the person responsible for providing electronic information services to users of the library, wanted to talk about the place of electronic materials in a library that aspires to be a cultural institution as well as a provider of current research. The question in brief: should the library continue to subscribe to print journals or should they purchase access only via electronic aggregators.

BibAlex already provides access to a few dozen periodical databases, to electronic books through ebrary, and a number of specialized databases for statistical and scientific information. They have EBSCO, JSTOR, IPA, and several other well-known resources in addition to some very specialized resources for disciplines taught in the University of Alexandria, such as medicine and agriculture. At the same time, the main library (as opposed to the specialized libraries—the Taha Hussein library for the blind, the children’s and young people’s libraries and special collections) collects exhaustively (or would like to) in certain areas: Egyptology, the ancient library at Alexandria, the history of the city of Alexandria, ethical issues relating to biotechnology, development issues, the history of science and technology, artistic expression and criticism, and the history of writing and scripts. The library is a very complex organization (being itself only part of a larger cultural institution…) with overlapping areas of responsibility.

I responded to Eiman’s question about whether or not to continue collecting print periodicals by saying that that was a decision the library would have to reach on its own after weighing all the issues: do you have room? Can you afford to purchase print and access to electronic periodical databases? What purpose would be served by keeping periodicals? Which form best serves your users? I did offer the observation that the library might want to keep print journals for those areas of interest for which there was a “special collections” unit or archival function, such as the history of science and technology, printing history and so forth. The main concern seemed to be the matter of purchasing access only (and therefore no guarantee of continuity should the electronic source disappear one day) over maintaining complete runs of print journals. A related issue for them was the purchase of access to journal collections many of which are not used by the library’s users and therefore are considered a waste of resources.

The reference selector, Shirine Abdel Kader wanted to know about electronic reference works and their suitability as opposed to print materials and was looking for a selection tool that might help the library fill in gaps in its reference collections. I told her that there were such tools in addition to those they were already using (OCLC especially) and said I would provide her with information on those. She also wanted to know how to analyze the use of the collection so that they might make better selection decisions. This initial meeting concluded with my commitment to helping them begin to address their concerns and I promised to come back to them with some ideas for them to consider. I also said that I would provide some ideas for tools that might make their selection work more effective and easier.

When the meeting concluded, I took myself off to lunch at the café and watched the parade of people on the plaza as I ate. There is an anesthesiology conference being held at the library over the next couple of days, so there were a lot of suits around (the University of Alexandria has a medical college…) but the most interesting thing to see just now is how women deal with the whole “veil” thing. One sees the “traditional” outfit—the black two-piece covering consisting of an ankle length black dress over which is worn a second piece of black cloth which covers the head, face, and torso—relatively rarely, but at the same time regularly. By that I mean that I see such outfits on a daily basis, several times a day. But they are not common; most women don’t wear such garments.

However, many women, perhaps half of those I see on the streets every day, wear some version of what I would call “Muslim modest” dress. But the variations are almost endless: loose blouse and hair-covering scarf over jeans or pants; scarf alone; floor-length dress with t-shirt top and scarf, or without scarf; pants suits, usually in a single color, worn with a hair-covering scarf. There is also an age distinction. Married women (married I assume because they have kids in tow) are more likely to wear “hijab” than teenagers; teenagers rarely wear the “traditional” garb in my experience here. Women in hijab will often be leading their girl children who are wearing sun dresses or other less concealing attire, so there are ranges of dress even within families it appears. What happens to these young girls’ mode of dress once they reach puberty, however, I can’t say.

And then there is the matter of color, fabric and design. Believe it or not, there is “designer” hijab. Walk down any commercial street or enter any mall where there are women’s clothing shops and you will see the most elaborate “hijabs” you ever saw. Contrary to the avowed purpose of the hijab—not only to conceal the female body but to deflect any sort of attention to the woman at all, to make her invisible, in other words—these outfits are attention-getting! Bright colors, patterns, expensive fabrics, adornments such as sequins or pearls (fake or real, I suppose, depending on your income level…), and so forth. Many appear to be form-fitting, or at least tailored so as not to be formless, or even form-hiding. Some I would characterize as stunning. The range of adaptation is truly amazing.

Anyway, after lunch, it’s more meetings. I meet up again with Manar Badr, the head of reference for the main library and we spend a couple of hours talking about reference services in the library and the problems her department faces. A major issue is staff turnover. Reference positions are often entry level positions for new librarians and there is a lot of training work that goes on to bring new hires up to speed, Training sessions are almost ongoing in that there is usually a new cohort of hires going through some sort of training at any given time. Sometimes, out of a group of four prospective employees, the library ends up hiring only one, or in some cases none, of the candidates. The work schedule is a big issue. Reference librarians work on an eight-day rotation, so they work two weekends out of a month (BibAlex is closed only six days out of the year!). Many people find this sort of demand on their time unacceptable or untenable, especially young recent university graduates who want their weekends free.

Since the reference staff is also integral to the collection development process, it is imperative that new hires develop an expertise in one or two areas so that they can assist in this work. Egyptian culture, I’m told, is not a reading culture. That being the case, reference administration has to work hard to get reference librarians to learn the field(s) of their responsibility and to develop the skills necessary to enable them to make intelligent selection decisions. University graduates with degrees in specific areas can acquire such knowledge readily, if they are motivated to do so. Of course, reference librarians only make recommendations to collection development, but the quality of those recommendations is important to the efficient management of the collection development operation.

We visit several reference stations, beginning with the main information desk, where general directional questions are handled and where a variety of other tasks are performed. Users may sign up for any of the instructional courses offered and inquire about any of the cultural events hosted by the library (of which there are many). The main desk, I was told, is extremely busy once the university goes into session. (That happens this coming week.) In any case, the desk is busy most times.

We then go to observe reference activities at a few other locations throughout the library. As I think I mentioned earlier, each level of the library (there are seven in all) has its own reference desk. Given the wide range of familiarity with libraries possessed by its users, the reference people have to be ready to give a very broad spectrum of assistance. At one desk we visited, the reference librarian had to provide an explanation of the library’s organization of materials to a family of Egyptian tourists who had obviously never been in a library before. The librarian handled the query thoroughly and effectively. The group moved off in the proper direction and seemed to have understood the information conveyed.

Our last stop was the B4 level where theses and dissertations are shelved. This is the one section of the main library that has closed shelves. The reason for this is that the theses and dissertations are heavily used and controlled access assures that the materials are always available to users. This area was quite busy when we visited on a weekday mid-afternoon. Stacks of returned items lined one side of the reference desk and I watched the librarian deal with three or four people, one after the other, within the space of five minutes or less. Manar, who was my guide for this little tour even had to jump in at one point to prevent people from waiting too long.

With this final stop, my day at the library drew to a close. I made one final stop at my office to see what was in store for tomorrow and found nothing waiting for me. I concluded that I wasn’t going to be needed on Tuesday and set off for home thinking about how I might use a free day. I wanted to pick up train tickets for my trip to Cairo on Wednesday and I thought I might do some grocery shopping and catch up on writing the blog.

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