The Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or “New Library of Alexandria,” is an attempt to recreate the tradition of the first “Great Library of Alexandria” built by Ptolemy in the third century BC. It is either a stunning triumph of modern architecture or “The Rotten Oyster” depending on your point of view. It is a stunning building, designed by a Norwegian firm incorporating types of natural wood never seen in Egypt. Some Egyptians wonder “why a Norwegian, why Norwegian wood?” I like it. The outer wall has carvings of letters from most of the world’s alphabets reflected in a blue moat that surrounds much of the building.
Libraries make me uncomfortable. I have a library phobia. It may be that I have a voice that carries and librarians were always shushing me, embarrassing me in front of everyone. But I actually enjoyed this place — at first. The stacks are in ascending galleries with balconies. The internal views are soaring. There are fascinating exhibits of old printing presses, and historic photos of Alexandria. And people were talking! There was a constant murmur, an undertone not disturbing anyone. This library was designed by a good acoustic engineer, so that normal conversation is not distracting. I was beginning to think I could beat my phobia, but about an hour into my visit I got a quaky feeling, like I was on the ultimate caffeine jag. Reluctantly I had to leave. Out in the sun and air it took me about an hour to recover. I wish I understood this.
A month or so later I wrote: Now I am working at the Alexandria library, helping the library plan for a community radio station. A comprehensive tour of the place helped put me at ease. The library is completely integrated with the new technology. I particularly enjoyed the ancient manuscript room where I watched the process of digitizing manuscripts to allow scholars to examine them on huge screens without touching them. The library has one of the world’s Internet Archives, the “wayback machine” that scans and stores webpages. It’s fascinating to see how much physically bigger the archive is for the early Internet years when storage was less efficient and there was less to store. Looking at the declining physical space taken for storage for each year archived demonstrates storage technology advances. It should be an exhibit itself. My favorite toy, however, is a printing and binding machine. It can take any book of up to 500 pages that has been digitized and prints it, and binds it with a full color cover. You can order out of print books if they are in the public domain or they are out of copyright.
I have gotten through my last two trips to the library without a panic attack. Is my love of radio and technology stronger than my fear of libraries?
When I took over the Serbia position Suzi took over my work at the Alexandria Library. Unfortunately the community station was never built. History intervened. Zoom into the map at the top of the page for a good satellite view of the library.