Ancient Egyptian library reborn in modern form

Organizers hope to offer global access via Internet

After Egyptian King Ptolemy I built the Bibliotheca Alexandrina nearly 2,300 years ago, the great library became the intellectual center of the ancient world.

Ptolemy hoped to gather as much human knowledge as possible, so ships anchored in the port were impounded until all the manuscripts they contained could be copied. World leaders lent their scrolls for duplication, and library officials traveled far and wide to purchase entire collections. Meanwhile, dutiful scribes hand copied the library's awesome collection, which eventually grew to as many as 700,000 scrolls.

Last month, a new Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in Alexandria near the site of the ancient library. It is equally ambitious as it sets about gathering information. But Internet technology means the methods, and the goals, have changed.

"It is our intention that the library of Alexandria shall once more be a universal library, not in the old-fashioned way of how many things we collect and keep," says library director Ismail Serageldin, "but in how many things can we ensure are accessible to as many people around the world as possible."

With such grand plans, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has garnered international attention since its foundation stone was laid 14 years ago. Some 3,000 dignitaries came to the official opening of the massive 11-story cylindrical building sunk halfway into the ground and tilted toward the sea. Designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta, the building looks as if it's emerging from the earth, the great library coming back to life 1,600 years after Christian mobs allegedly destroyed it.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is one of the largest libraries ever built. It has the world's biggest reading room – with six terraced floors – and enough bookshelves to cover four football fields. The $225 million structure has only 250,000 books at present, but can hold up to 8 million. It also houses 300 Internet-connected computers, a 3,200-seat conference center, a planetarium, a science museum, and a calligraphy museum.

Some experts say the library's long-term goal of gathering and preserving all recorded human knowledge is next to impossible, given the expenses involved.

"We have, at best, maybe 2 percent of all human knowledge in digital form, and personally I think less," says Charley Seavey, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Information Science and Learning Technologies. Mr. Seavey says it would take over $1 billion dollars to digitize just the 17 million books in the Library of Congress – and that doesn't include the 95 million other items in its collection or the cost of storing and retrieving this material.

Copyright restrictions would also complicate the project. "Many contemporary publications are proprietary, i.e., for sale by publishers or vendors," says Thomas Nisonger, an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Library and Information Science.

In addition, many developing countries lack the communications infrastructure, including reliable electricity and phone lines, to make these materials available online.

But Noha Adly, head of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's information technology department, says that costs are rapidly decreasing and that publishers will eventually have to lift copyright restrictions if they want to keep up in the electronic age.

Mr. Serageldin doesn't give much weight to what the doubters say. Instead, he's been busy forging partnerships with believers such as Brewster Kahle, director of Internet Archive in San Francisco.

"Rebuilding the Library of Alexandria is a dream of mine for decades and a dream of humankind for a millennium," Mr. Kahle says. "In the early days, they used papyrus. Now we can use digital technology. The idea of collecting all knowledge of all the people of the world is now within our grasp."

Kahle has made contributions worth $5 million to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, including a complete and evolving copy of the World Wide Web, catalogued since 1996, 2,000 hours of Egyptian and US broadcast television, 1,000 archival films, and a sophisticated book scanner.

Soon Kahle also plans to open an Internet Archive center in Europe and another in Asia. His vision is that eventually everyone will be able to access everything from Shakespeare to medical or philosophical texts. "A child that walks one day to a library in rural Yemen will be able to have access to it all."

One of the library's plans is to put online a 200,000-volume Arabic library of the best works from a variety of subjects. But only a fraction of what's envisioned is currently available on the website ( People can access a summary of the library's holdings from home, but still have to come to the library to read whole works.

Library officials hope others will follow its lead by digitizing their holdings, eventually forming a massive network.

"The biggest challenge is not technology," Kahle says. "It's a mind-set change – that now something is possible that wasn't possible before."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.