Hands Around The Library Author's Blog

Blog posts from Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, the authors of The Hands Around The Library - Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books.

The Author's Blog

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Sisters and Friends

Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) in Baltimore and Hands Around the Library are sharing a burst of public attention this month at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which has a row of giant windows facing Cathedral Street in downtown Baltimore.  At the suggestion of Deborah Taylor, the librarian who coordinates school and student services at Enoch Pratt, the library’s art director Jack Young created this giant poster. 


When people scan the QR code in the lower corner, they are immediately transported to a page giving the full name of the library in Alexandria, Egypt – and the opportunity to contribute to our ongoing Virtual Book Drive The fundraiser is a partnership with the nonprofit literacy organization First Book and Washington-Baltimore Friends of the BA under the auspices of the Baltimore Luxor Alexandria Sister City Committees. We have raised $610 so far to purchase books for the Children’s Library at the BA from the First Book Global Marketplace but we want the total to be much bigger before our fund drive ends on April 27. Please join us with your donation and the opportunity to choose specific books from the BA wish list!

 If you are in Baltimore, your second stop after the library should be Kin+ Cargo: Exploring Baltimore’s Sister Cities, a public art exhibition in a PODS container at the Inner Harbor. Ashley Molese, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, borrowed objects from residents of Baltimore’s Sister Cities to explore life in these port cities. Baltimore currently has active Sister City relationships with Rotterdam, Netherlands; Kawasaki, Japan; Xiamen, China; Piraeus, Greece; and Luxor and Alexandria, Egypt. The exhibit includes Japanese tea sets, a bottle scraper and bollard paperweight from Rotterdam, jump ropes, porcelain, tote bags and fabric.

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Sister Cities are established to promote citizen diplomacy.  Started after a White House Conference in 1956, there are now 600 American cities with 2,000 partnerships in 136 countries As Ashley says, “Connections made official on paper, between city governments, have personally affected and touched individuals around the globe. Representatives on the Sister City Committees have made it heir life’s work to preserve and promote such ties.” Boy Scouts are exchanging visits this year between Baltimore and Kawasaki. The Rotterdam Committee regularly exchanges art and artists.

In the past, the Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister City Committee has hosted student interns, librarians from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and tours to Egypt. Most recently, the Committee used a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to provide clean drinking water to Nagaa Village Gad Al Kareem near Luxor. Currently, the Committee is sponsoring the Virtual Book Drive for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Children’s Library.

Even in the small space of a PODS container, the Kin + Cargo exhibit offers a chair and settee so visitors can read anecdotes about the various objects or look at maps, meet other visitors and imagine the connections and similarities between their life and life in China, the Netherlands or Egypt.   Kin + Cargo will be open until April 21 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, noon to 7 p.m. daily.

Find out more about the Friends of the BA in Baltimore – and now expanding to include the Washington, D.C., area – at baltimoreegypt.org.  If you’d like to know more about the Friends or even become a member, write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Sister City Committee Leaders/MembersAshley Molese + Tharwat Abouraya

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Today’s blog is excerpted from “Historic Hours and Tumultous Times: Reflections on the Third Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution,” by Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Complete essay here.


b2ap3_thumbnail_headshot.jpgTumultuous times, historic hours… greatness achieved, then lost, retrieved and lost again in the fog of uncertainty as the elusive dream of building our new republic on an inclusive society and a system of laws seems to be overtaken by an active war on terror…

Today, Egypt is at a difficult cross-roads.  It is affirming its right to build a democratic system where human rights shall be respected and protected.   But forces are pulling in different directions.  The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Jihadists seem determined to use violence and terror.  The machinery of the state is determined to stop them.  And the people, with a profound anger against the Brotherhood and their Jihadist allies, are calling for that machinery of state to crush them, to destroy them. But that same machinery will also unleash the forces of the autocratic state.  And there, our dreams of democracy and pluralism are themselves at risk. That is the price we pay for waging a “war on terror,” for wanting security at any cost, order by any means… we risk embarking on a slippery slope towards the autocratic state.

The regime and its opponents enter into that treacherous terrain at the risk of destroying that which they claim to protect and defend. Soon blood flows on both sides…The deadly machinery of repression starts taking hold.

Soon all opposition is suspect…Opposing views are censored. Discussion is derided as indecision and debate as obstruction. Dissent is derided then forbidden.

Listen to the Better Angels of our Nature

Remember the early days of the revolution.  Remember the grandeur and nobility of the peaceful demonstrations that stunned the world and brought to life dreams of better tomorrows.  It is now three years since we have launched our revolution.  Many young people have paid with their lives for the pursuit of their dreams, whatever these dreams were.  But the dead are still among us, not just in the grieving of those who loved them, but in the burden they pose to our memory.

In its hour of anger and loss, Egypt is turning to General Abdel Fattah El Sissi, who has just been given the title of Field Marshal, and who is leaving his post as head of the Armed Forces to become a candidate for the presidency under the newly approved constitution.  Barring some totally unforeseeable event, it is a foregone conclusion that he will sweep the polls in a landslide.  He will become Egypt’s next elected president. 

Will he indeed be the strong and visionary leader who will surround himself with ability and talent and meet these challenges and guide Egypt beyond the current crisis in our land?  I sincerely hope so.

Will he be the rare providential man, who will show the restraint of a George Washington, and allow a nation of laws to emerge, rather than succumb to the seduction of ambition and the corruption of power that the autocratic state and its repressive machinery can so skillfully nurture?  I sincerely hope so.

Will he be the leader who can end terror and then lead our national reconciliation?  I sincerely hope so.

Our youth, are the real guardians of the values of humanity.  They reinvigorate revolutionary fervor every generation and they dream new dreams suited to their times. They have shown their mettle in these three years of the Egyptian revolution.  

Whatever the future holds, I know that it is only by holding on to the values of human dignity for all, equality for all, liberty for all and creating the institutions of a republic of laws based on freedom and participation that the promise of the revolution will be redeemed, its dreams – at least partially – fulfilled.  And I know that it is the Egyptian youth of today and tomorrow who will make it happen.




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Periodically Hands Around the Library highlights efforts to make books more available to people in cities and villages all over the world who are hungry to learn and read. Today, our guest blogger is Chris Bradshaw, President and Founder of the African Library ProjectThe African Library Project (ALP) coordinates book drives in the United States and partners with African schools and villages to start small libraries. ALP has started over 1,000 libraries in Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Swaziland. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_logo3medium.pngI just returned from Sierra Leone, my first time back in 40 years since I was a student at Fourah Bay College in Freetown during my junior year abroad.  While some aspects of life in Sierra Leone have improved, I was shocked to see how much of it seems worse.  Even in the capital, running water and electricity are scarce resources. After 11 years of civil war, peace is a precious treasure now in Sierra Leone.  

Since over 1,200 schools were lost in the war, communities have taken the initiative to build or begin their own school, paying for the school’s construction and the teachers’ salaries. Hamilton Community School is one of these. It is a one-room school with about 90 students, ages 3-13 years old. The students sit at tables according to their ages. The school was originally just a preschool, but has begun expanding to primary school students.  

I visited Hamilton Community School just after they received their books from ALP. The students are totally digging them and are very appreciative of this gift from the Powers family of Ridgewood, New Jersey. The Powers family got their “power” from many people in their community, including Hawes School and Ridgewood Library. Therese Powers says, “Libraries are such very special places that bring the world to people and nourish minds and imaginations no matter what the situation.   I am so happy to be involved with ALP.”

Books are very expensive in African countries, but we encourage schools and communities to supplement the books we send with local language books. Our most valued books are fiction of the appropriate reading level; we send books with universal appeal or with specific relevance to Africa. ALP is recruiting book drive organizers now for the spring. Would you collect 1,000 gently used books and about $500 for shipping to start a library in Sierra Leone?


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 “We will not be out of turbulence for a little while.”
                            Ismail Serageldin, Director, Bibliotheca Alexandrina

 “We are trying to have a transformation through this turmoil.”
                           Fathy Abou Ayana, Chairman,
                           Egyptian Association for Friends of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

 Egyptians at the recent meeting of the International Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (IFBA) were eager to explain the current state of affairs in their country. The meeting itself was extraordinary – a Webex meeting which allowed almost two dozen participants from several countries to see and hear each other as we talked about the library and the country we all cherish.

Petition photo by Ahmed Ateyyaf for Egypt Pulse

b2ap3_thumbnail_PetitionsAgainstMorsiPhotobyAhmedAteyyaforEgyptPulse.jpgEgyptians are especially concerned about what they perceive as bias in Western media reports that continue to refer to the “coup” that forced Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July.  Because millions of Egyptians had peacefully signed a petition seeking a new round of presidential elections and because that request was refused by Mr. Morsi, the military stepped in to fulfill the wishes of those millions and point the country in a new direction. Not a coup, they insist.

“The vast majority of Egyptians sided with the demand to remove Morsi,” explained Dr. Serageldin. “Twenty percent fervently supported him. There are those who want a country whose identity is linked to a particularly Islamic interpretation and those who want a pluralist outlook without inculcating Islam into the structure of the country.” The military stopped a headlong movement toward a more Islamic state without intending to concentrate power in the hands of a few military officers – the traditional outcome of a coup.

Dr. Serageldin remains optimistic about the future of Egypt, largely because of what he calls a “magical b2ap3_thumbnail_Women-protesters.jpgtransformation…If you had asked me the biggest problem in Egyptian society under former President Hosni Mubarak, I would have said the apathy of the Egyptian people. Now Egyptian society is totally engaged in a manner undreamed for 40 to 50 years: people of modest backgrounds to university professors and society ladies who would never have participated in a demonstration…This gives me great hope that there will be checks and balances and people will not go back to an authoritarian regime. The unwillingness of the people to be pushed around is a new reality. Any leader will have to cope with that.”  

Friends of the BA
Dr. Serageldin is proud that all sides have remained strong supporters of the library, including the many Friends organizations around the world. Shortly after the October meeting, he announced a major agreement with the Royal Tropical Institute of the Netherlands, Europe’s largest library pertaining to development issues.  The library’s collection of 400,000 books and 20,000 journals is being transferred to the BA, which will protect it and make it publicly accessible. 



Friends groups from different countries often support particular projects or sections at the BA.  The Swedish Friends collect books for the Nobel Library at the BA. They are also gathering a digital “UN Dag Hammarskjold Peace Mediator Archive” to be made available through the BA to peace researchers around the world. 

The Egyptian Friends organize public lectures, dinners and special events at the Library itself, including workshops for young people on poetry and digital design.

The Dutch Friends support the BA’s Taha Hussein Library for blind and visually impaired individuals.


The French are funding training for librarians who work with the BA’s large French collection. 

Mexican Friends are developing a “Casa de las Culturas del Mediterráneo, Africa y Medio Oriente” to foster cultural exchanges in Mexico City.  The Minnesota Friends frequently work with the NGO Books for Africa to ship containers of books to the Alexandria Library. The California Friends coordinated the donation of 1,000 origami peace cranes made by children in Sacramento to the children of Alexandria, Egypt.

The Friends of the BA in Baltimore is a subcommittee of the Baltimore-Alexandria Sister City Committee – we are working to revitalize the activities of this Friends group – watch this space for upcoming events and opportunities!

Congratulations to Friends groups around the world for their creativity, their generosity and their joy in keeping their hands around the Bibliotheca Alexandrina!

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I’m insane,” said April Kessler, after agreeing to participate in a 130-mile bike ride called Cycling for Libraries. “My bike has a layer of dust on it. I cycled three miles and almost died.” But April ramped up her training, rode to work on her bike, got a stationary bike at home and headed to Amsterdam with two American friends and librarians from 22 other countries.

April is a business librarian at the University of Texas. Karen Holt had just returned from Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar. Barbara Fullerton works for a library services contractor. They became friends through the Special Libraries Association in Texas.                                                          

                                                                                                    April Kessler, Karen Holt, Barbara Fullerton

b2ap3_thumbnail_AprilKarenBarbara.jpgA group of active library professionals from Finland started the cycling events with a ride from Copenhagen to Berlin in 2011 and a Baltic state tour in 2012.  From June 18 – 26, 2013, 120 librarians and friends cycled about 250 miles, visiting Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft, Gent and the European Parliament in Brussels.

Think the Netherlands offered a nice flat ride? Think windmills. “The wind was always coming toward us,” said April. “The wind was never behind us. We cycled across dikes by the ocean. Where do I get this kind of weather in Austin?”

The organizers call the event an “unconference,” marked by spontaneous discussions and brainstorming rather than PowerPoints® and lecture hall speeches.

 “It’s a different way of looking at your challenges. You get so many different perspectives,” says April.  She saw a library in Delft working with Microsoft to create a program that reads a patron’s address from a library card and pulls up pictures of the street from the library’s historical collection, creating a personal digital archive.  Usage of the digital collection skyrocketed.  April is working with the IT professionals in Austin to generate a similar response with digital journal collections at the University of Texas.

Karen Holt liked the use of cross-functional teams in Stockholm, where a digital project might include people from web design, cataloguing and public service. “I found a lot of ideas inspiring and it made me think about my own work differently.”

The cyclists talked to members of the Dutch parliament and offered a declaration about the importance of libraries to the European Union in Brussels. “People see all these bikes outside a library and say, ‘what’s going on?’ There is a lot of visible marketing. We want to make sure libraries remain a top priority,” said Barbara.

                                                                                                    Grande Place, Brussels, Belgium


April and Karen







Along with all the networking and advocacy comes a difficult bike ride. “You have to bike to the next destination, no matter what the weather. You learn a lot about yourself during this process,” says Karen.  A video team and a chef accompany the cyclists, who bike about 37 miles (60 km) a day. The fee is about $350 dollars (250 Euro) and covers most food, accommodations and programs.  

Unaccustomed to the large heavy bike she rented, Barbara hit the pavement wrong early in the trip, sending her back to Amsterdam for much of the trip.  But her spirits were not dampened. She intends to initiate a 25-mile Cycling for Libraries ride just before the Texas Library Association annual conference in San Antonio next April. It’s open to anyone in the U.S. – interested riders should contact Barbara at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“I have friends working all over Europe and America,” said Karen. “It’s incredibly confidence-building. There is nothing like doing this in the wind and rain and then realizing I just did that with all these people who are now my friends.”

Next year, Cycling for Libraries rides from Barcelona, Spain, to Lyons, France.  Enjoy the videos and the comments from 2013 and contemplate signing up for 2014 at www.cyclingforlibraries.org or find the cyclists on Facebook


My two favorite things in life are books and bicycles.
They both move people forward without wasting anything.

Peter Golkin



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