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Change of Plans

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, 29 September 2009

One learns to be flexible in Egypt. Very flexible. I awoke at about 6 AM and went about the usual morning chores: shower, breakfast, coffee and the like. I sat down on the couch and studied some Arabic for a while and was thinking about setting off for the railway station for my tickets when the cell phone rang. It was Bassma El-Shazly calling to ask if I were in the library. “No,” I said. “There was no schedule left for me so I assumed that I wasn’t needed today.”

“No schedule?”

“None.”

“Well, but we set up meetings for you today with the instructional services people and our continuing education person.”

“Fine,” I said. “I have an errand to run and I’ll be there in an hour.”

That was agreeable to her so I dressed, got a cab to the train station, bought my tickets, and then got another cab to the library. Shortly after I arrived, Amira Hegazy, the head of instructional services, knocked on my door and led me to her office where I was introduced to her colleague Halaa. We sat down and Amira launched into her description of the instructional operation of the library. She and her department are responsible for planning, designing and offering all the information literacy courses for library users EXCEPT the users of the Taha Hussein Library for the Visually Impaired, which has its own instructional effort run by its librarians. Amira draws on various other units and departments for instructors for her programs. People from collection development, reference and other areas serve as instructors. She is responsible for training her own instructors, but the unit has also taken advantage of a UNESCO “training the trainers” workshop to develop librarians into effective teachers of information literacy.

Amira’s group has designed five different courses which address the needs of users at all levels. There is a basic introduction to information, an introduction to the internet and databases, a library science workshop directed at technical services librarians and students, a course on citations, an advanced course on the internet, and one on writing a paper. The courses are offered on a monthly basis and run over a two-week period. They meet for between three and seven two-hour sessions each.

One of Amira’s biggest problems is motivating students in the courses her department offers. Those who complete a course are given a certificate indicating that they are now proficient in whatever skill is being addressed in that course. A certain percentage of those in attendance show up but do not bother to pay attention or otherwise fail to participate. Even when quizzes are given as a way of judging competence, such students fail to develop the targeted skills. I suggested a couple of ways that she might address this problem but I told her that I would want to see how the courses are taught before making any substantive recommendations. In addition, I told her that my Fulbright project had information literacy as one of its foci and that I expected to spend a considerable amount of time working with her and her instructors. We agreed to follow up and she escorted me to my next meeting.

Amira introduced me to Mohamed El-Gohary whose responsibility is to develop and provide “continuing education” courses to all employees of the library sector. He gave me a brief history of his time at the library and how he arrived at his current position. His original job was as an electronic resources specialist; he has been in his current job for a year. He is still without a budget, so everything he does or tries to do must be done with resources begged borrowed or stolen (probably not…) from other areas. A shoestring operation in other words.

In addition to training for employees of the BibAlex library operation, he is being asked to develop training programs for librarians and library employees of libraries in other Arabic speaking countries. Such training has already taken place on a small scale, but given BibAlex’s aspiration to be a supra-national library resource for Africa and the Arab world, he expects to be doing much more of that kind of work in the future. To this end, he produces many of his own educational and training manuals, borrowing heavily from previously published materials (these are for internal use only and are often composites of several works). Formal publications for certain topics are being planned as well. The library has a robust publications program and this will likely be expanded to include training materials in addition to the edited scholarly works, exhibition catalogues and the like that the library already publishes.

Mohamed is in desperate need of guidance, he says, because he hasn’t found anyone who has a job like his anywhere in the library world. He recounted his experience at the recent IFLA conference in Italy, his first time at a major librarian conference, telling me that he was unable to find anyone with analogous responsibilities there. His conclusion was that there is no model for what he is being asked to do. I concurred that, because of BibAlex’s unique position in the library universe, he probably would not find such a person.

Mohamed is very bright and capable and I have no doubt that he will develop a creditable program. He explained to me his approach to solving his problem and showed me some of the courses and lectures he was planning to offer. His starting point is knowledge management with an emphasis on knowledge sharing. The overall aim of his program is to engage library employees in the execution of the library’s purpose by offering ongoing training so that employees might address any shortcomings they have regarding their current jobs or their future career ambitions.

Parenthetically, I find BibALex to be a singular institution in terms of the opportunities it offers dedicated employees. Many of the department and section heads I have spoken with started their BibAlex careers as technical professional employees and moved up the organizational ladder as they developed more sophisticated skills and a more solid grounding in librarianship. I find the level of professionalism and commitment to library ideals truly remarkable in this institution, where the great majority of librarian-level employees have no MLS’s or MLIS’s on their resumes. They are, in a sense, throwbacks to the apprenticeship model once found in the medical and, until quite recently, legal fields, where people were trained by practitioners. It is easy to forget when speaking to these folks that they have, at best a BA level formal education in library science. Their mastery of and dedication to librarianship is very impressive.

Among Mohamed’s programs is a course in advanced English and a course in speed reading which is aimed at improving the skills of reference and catalogue librarians in rapid foreign language comprehension. As I have mentioned elsewhere, turnover is a major problem here so ongoing training is crucial for those who must often pick up the slack caused by sudden departures. Management skills are lacking in many librarians who are frequently asked to become administrators, so courses in that area are important as well.

In a way, what Mohamed is doing is redundant; many of the sections—reference and information technology in particular—have their own training programs and many of those courses are available to all BibAlex employees as well. The institution is thus very rich in training and educational opportunities. However, Mohamed’s work seeks to address a perceived need for training and education that not only produces better trained employees, but seeks to enhance their potential I confessed that I was not certain that I would be able to help him very much; my “expertise,” such as it is, lies elsewhere, but Mohamed insisted that I could be of use to him and his program. I agreed to review his materials and to follow up with him on possible points of collaboration. With that we concluded our meeting.

I went back to my office and had just gotten settled when there was a knock on the door and Lamia Abd al-Fattah introduced herself. Lamia is responsible for the special collections unit. This includes art history and criticism, mixed media and film, the UN depository library and music. We walk and take the elevator down to her office on the lowest level of the library and are joined by Lamia’s colleague, Silvia Stavridi, who does selection for these areas. We talk about the organization of the unit and what problems they face. The issue of gaps in the collections comes up again, so this is obviously something that I will have to spend time with everyone on. Selection tools—or their lack—seems to weigh on everyone’s mind and where should one go to find reliable information about non-print materials most specifically. Lamia stresses that this is especially true for the core titles in the multi-media collection.

We talk for a while and then Silvia excuses herself and Lamia and I take a quick tour through her departments. We spend a few minutes in each one, looking at the collection, observing activity at the reference desks, going into work areas where we can see what is happening “behind the scenes.” Everywhere we go, there are workmen doing something, either installing wiring, building walls, running cables, or making noise for some unknown reason.

One of the most heavily used and important special libraries in BibAlex is the Taha Hussein Library for the Visually Impaired. Taha Hussein (1889-1973) is the Egyptian Helen Keller, in a way. Although blind since the age of three, he managed to enter Cairo University and eventually earn a PhD in Arabic Literature. He was also the founding Rector of the University of Alexandria. Along the way, he earned a second PhD from the Sorbonne in Paris. The Taha Hussein Library not only provides reading materials for the visually impaired, it also trains the blind in the use of software so that they can learn to use computers. The head librarian is herself blind; she gave me a very interesting demonstration of the computers and software available for the use of visually impaired Alexandrians. Her English is excellent; she holds a degree in English literature from the University of Alexandria. She pointed out one elderly man who had come to the library unable to read or use a computer. He is now completely keyboard fluent and extremely adept at using the various tools the library has. Soon to come is a text-to-speech machine that will be able to read both English and Arabic. Another dedicated and competent librarian working beyond her resources.

Our last stop is the UN depository library which also includes documents from other supra-national organizations, the Arab League in particular. One of the foci of the collection is development issues, but the library collects most of what these organizations publish.

Time to head for home and prepare for a tour of Cairo on Wednesday. I’m a bit apprehensive about the reliability of train service here and am anxious not to hold up the rest of the group on the tour since I’ll be joining while the tour is underway in Cairo.

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