In January 2011 anti-government protests erupted across Egypt, some of which turned violent. While the focal point was Tahrir Square in Cairo, protests and civil unrest was seen in all major cities. Some libraries fell prey to looting and destruction, while others were fiercely protected by their communities.
In Alexandria the Bibliotheca Alexandrina holds the role of national library, as well as a modern embodiment of the historic Library of Alexandria. The library itself closed during the protests to protect the space, staff, and collection, but was also protected on the outside by the local community. A human chain formed around the library as protests erupted nearby. Those protecting the library were making a physical and symbolic statement about the value and importance of the library in turbulent times, and were an inspiration around the world.
In the immediate aftermath of the protests, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina held a variety of symposia on political topics. Rather than shy away from a controversial topic, the library actively encouraged political awareness and engagement amongst the community. As trusted sources of information, libraries in civil unrest can provide citizens with valuable information on their rights and political responsibilities.
Some questions you may wish to discuss with your partner:
- Have you ever been in an area of civil unrest? Has your library ever had to respond to a situation like this?
- Libraries are often government funded – how can they serve the needs of their community if their community is acting against the government?
- What role do our professional ethics of freedom of access to information play when we are challenged by civil unrest?
- How do you think you or your library would react in a situation of civil unrest? Does your library have a preparedness plan for these situations?
Special thanks go to the ILN Egypt Coordinator, Dr Amany Z. El Ramady, who provided source material for this post. Her contribution to this discussion has been very welcome.
Further reading on this topic:
- “A case study of Bibliotheca Alexandrina in supporting the Egyptian Revolution”, written by our own Dr Amany Z. El Ramady and published in International Leads, the newsletter of the ALA International Relations Roundtable at http://www.ala.org/irrt/sites/ala.org.irrt/files/content/intlleads/leadsarchive/201106.pdf
- “Civil unrest affects libraries in Cairo, Egypt”, written by Henry Mendleson and published in International Leads http://www.ala.org/irrt/sites/ala.org.irrt/files/content/intlleads/leadsarchive/201103.pdf
- “Egypt’s jewel of a library reopens, thanks to demonstrators”, a story told on National Public Radio in the United States http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/02/24/134009161/egypts-jewel-of-a-library-reopens-thanks-to-demonstrators
- “Historic hours and tumultuous times: reflections on the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution”, a moving essay by Ismail Serageldin, Librarian of Alexandria http://www.bibalex.org/Attachments/english/25jan.pdf
-Alyson Dalby, ILN Program Coordinator