A most interesting article appeared in Al-Ahram online this past week detailing the travails of the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy. Fahmy was researching the social and cultural history of Egypt during the 19th century and during his work, he found the Egyptian National Library most unhelpful, to say the least. He writes: "Readers’ services are unheard of, catalogs are designed to misguide and confuse readers, and staff feel offended if approached for help and advice."
We find this article intriguing for several reasons: First, Fahmy's research is fascinating, and shows what valuable material lies in the Egyptian National Library and Archives. We wonder - what exactly does the library contain, and from which periods in Egyptian history? Is is accessible to foreigners and non-Arabic speakers? Can an Israeli research in it?
Second, the hardships encountered by Fahmy in the Egyptian National Library are a problem that goes beyond any one country or nation. They reflect a conundrum which confronts both librarians and archivists: Is the reader a nuisance, a distraction from the work of preservation, or a client, deserving of the best of services?
The second half of Fahmy's article--his fascinating discovery of lost books and his tribulations with the current Egyptian authorities--is a story of its own and well-worth reading.