A glance at the spring issue of "The Wilson Quarterly": Alexandria's new library
Spring 2002 (Vol. 26, No. 2)
Rebirth of a Notion, Amy E. Schwartz
The new library in Alexandria, Egypt, is vast and ambitious, but it may never resonate with any of the power of the great library of old, writes Amy E. Schwartz, who covers cultural issues for The Washington Post.
Ancient Alexandria was the seat of the Ptolemaic dynasty and home to the likes of Archimedes, Eratosthenes, and Euclid, and its library held "the riches of classical learning, accumulated over centuries." Modern Alexandria is located in a country with widespread illiteracy, which "has been steadily flirting with book and press censorship, Islamic fundamentalism, and outright cultural repression." Its new library -- a 12-year, $210-million project -- has only recently become organized toward amassing a first-rate collection of books (a call for donations attracted 400,000 books, half of which are not worthy of the permanent collection, according to one estimate). The library is a project of the Egyptian government and Unesco, which Ms. Schwartz characterizes as "two enormous and lumbering bureaucracies in thrall to myriad political sensitivities." She adds: "It's fair to say that no one expects either of these institutions to be a fertile seedbed for world-class intellectual endeavor."
The contrast between ancient glory and modern bureaucracy notwithstanding, Ms. Schwartz finds it difficult not to be caught up in the romantic draw of the new library, which is thought to be close to the foundations of the great library itself and of the Pharos, Alexandria's ancient lighthouse and a wonder of the ancient world. Buoyed by a recent increase in archaeological finds in and around Alexandria, sentiment for the imposing new structure -- designed to evoke the rising sun -- is enough to make Ms. Schwartz stop wondering about whether the library will ever meet its planners' aspirations and appreciate the fact that something is being built, rather than dug up, in Alexandria.
The article is not online, but information about the magazine is available at http://wwics.si.edu/outreach/wq/quarterl.htm.
Posted July 01, 2002