Archive for October, 2009

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?”


“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.

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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