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Uncle Sam Shows 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.

Thursday 1 October 2009

There were supposed to be more meetings for me this morning with the directors and unit leaders to discuss my work program for the next four months, but as I was leaving the apartment, Hend, Sohair’s assistant, called and said that they would have to postpone those meetings. I wasn’t given a reason and it wasn’t really necessary to have one, I suppose. I headed off to the library anyway and settled into my cubicle to do some computer work. I caught up on some blog entries and checked my e-mail.

Around noon I set off for the café next to the library for some lunch. Unfortunately, there was some special event there involving USAID, so the main part of the café was closed off. All the tables on the veranda were also occupied; guy at the door said sorry, no more room. So, another day without lunch. For a big city there are remarkably few restaurants around—other than the ubiquitous fast food joints that one finds everywhere these days—and surprisingly none anywhere near this huge institution. I will either have to lower my standards or go a little farther afield when I go looking for an eatery.

Back to my office, then, and tried to keep busy for twenty minutes or so, until the main event of the day, a lecture and presentation by some people from the US Embassy in Cairo. According to my schedule, they were supposed to be talking about a new program, the “ALA Sister Libraries Program” and giving a presentation entitled “Libraries and the New Media Technologies.” I had run into Mohamed El-Gohary earlier in the day and had asked him where the auditorium was. I hadn’t seen any signs for it, nor had its location been revealed to me in any of my tours. He told me where to find it and at the appointed time, I went and found a seat.

Mohamed and Bassma El-Shazly had apparently organized this event and Bassma introduced the three embassy people: Henry Mendelsohn and Barbara Conaty from the Information Resource Office at the embassy in Cairo and Matt Whatley, an information technology consultant who helped set up twitter feeds for President Obama’s Cairo speech earlier this year. A fourth guy, who was introduced as a former librarian, tiptoed around taking pictures of the audience and speakers.

Mr. Mendelsohn opened the session with a presentation about a new program launched by ALA that seeks to establish formal relationships between libraries in the US and libraries abroad. Partner libraries may then share resources—lending or borrowing materials in foreign languages for example—or arranging exchanges of personnel. There were some questions at the end about the exact nature of the program: how to identify a suitable partner library, how to apply for the program, and so forth. There seemed to be a fair amount of interest in the program from the fifty or so librarians in attendance.

The next part of the program focused on electronic information sharing, specifically social networking sites and how librarians might exploit those kinds of tools in their work. “Second Life” was also introduced to the group as a potential way of drawing attention to one’s library, conducting virtual conferences and such things. There were some questions posed about these web sites and software, but the most substantive query came from the librarian for the Taha Hussein Library; she wanted to know what resources were available for the visually impaired. Well, the embassy folks didn’t have a direct answer for her but talked more generally about resources for “disabled” people in general. I felt that this was an unsatisfactory response. Although well-intentioned, it was not the appropriate reply.

The presentation concluded after about ninety minutes and people dispersed to their workplaces again. I went back to my little corner, collected my things and headed for home. Not having eaten since breakfast, I was in need of tucking into some groceries, which is what I proceeded to do.

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