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

The present and future of Egypt may be a question mark, but the library of Alexandria – the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) – continues to be an exclamation point, alive with energy, innovation and surprise.


Photos from Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The most recent BA Board of Trustees meeting was hosted by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi at the Ittihadiyya Palace in Cairo, where library director Ismail Serageldin reported that  “the President  expressed strong commitment to the values of pluralism and dialogue, and specifically endorsed the various centers of the BA suggesting that the Coptic Studies Program should become a full-fledged center of the BA joining the three new centers we have formed for the Environment, Islamic Culture, and Arabic Computational Linguistics.”

The new Coptic Studies Center aims to spread public awareness about this largely unknown era of history, and stress the fact that Coptic heritage is a heritage of all Egyptians. The Islamic Civilization Center focuses on the contributions of Muslim scientists, scholars, researchers and intellectuals in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the Islamic heritage of that era. The Environmental Studies Center focuses on environmental research in the region in the context of climate change and rise of pollution rates.

The chairman of the Australian Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandria, Lorenzo Montesini, called President Morsi’s speech a “momentous validation of the BA in Egypt….This public endorsement has at last made this institution, its 2,500 workers and its worldwide circle of International Friends groups stand tall again in the light of the international sun….The BA will continue to be Egypt’s window onto the world and the world’s window onto Egypt.”

So What’s Happening Today at the BA?

The library calendar is rich with opportunities to learn and share ideas. A League for Young Masters aims to raise environmental awareness among young people 18 to 25 years old.  There are clubs for children in chess, robotics and astronomy as well as classes in hieroglyphics and ballet.  Adults may attend poetry readings, a lecture on “Alexander the Great and the Political Manipulation of Religion in the Hellenistic Period” or a reading of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in Arabic. 

Many presentations at the library are available as webcasts. A Science Supercourse operated in partnership with the WHO Collaborating Center at the University of Pittsburgh provides online lectures and resources in public health, computer engineering, the environment and agriculture.

The Library celebrates Arab Deaf Week to expand inclusion of people with hearing impairments within society, while World Braille Day includes competitions with teams of sighted and blind children.

b2ap3_thumbnail_TahaHusseinBibAlex.jpgThe Taha Hussein Library for the Blind and Visually Impaired at the BA offers Braille training for sighted people as well as services for those who are blind, including the first Arabic Qur’an in DAISY format, which allows full audio and text viewing simultaneously. Taha Hussein, blinded at the age of three by faulty treatment of an infection, surmounted great obstacles to become one of the most influential 20th century Egyptian writers and intellectuals.


Photos of World Braille Day competitions by Tharwat Abouraya

Dr. Serageldin speaks worldwide about the library itself as well as his many other areas of interest and expertise – the knowledge revolution, ending hunger, sea level rise and water security, Arab culture, the future of the book and the making of social justice. In May, he spoke in Baku, Azerbaijan, at a conference organized by the Nizami Ganjavi International Center and the Club of Madrid, an organization of 80 former presidents and prime ministers from 56 countries dedicated to promoting democracy and change in the international community. In April, he addressed the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a society of scholars founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, saying that he wanted the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to “recapture the spirit of the Ancient Library in 21st century terms.”


Illustration by
Robina MacIntyre Marshall in
The Library of Alexandria
by Kelly Trumble

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Libraries the world over need friends, now more than ever. Free, public libraries embody the ideal of equal opportunity, offering every adult and child the chance to learn, grow, dream and imagine. In our digital age, the access provided in public libraries is invaluable.

“More than ever, libraries are community hubs,” said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, in State of America’s Libraries 2013, “and it is the librarian who works to maintain a safe harbor for teens, a point of contact for the elderly, and a place to nurture learning for all.”

David Vinjamuir wrote in Forbes January 16, 2013, that “more than half of young adults and senior citizens living in poverty in the United States use public libraries to access the internet to find work, apply to college, security government benefits and learn about critical medical treatments…for all this public libraries cost just $42 per citizen each year to maintain.”

The need to support local libraries can come at any moment – when there are proposals to close a branch, reduce a budget or eliminate a service.


Nationally, May 8 has been designated Virtual Library Legislative Day – an opportunity for all library advocates to make their voices heard on a national level. The American Library Association and United for Libraries are leading the way, with information on current issues and opportunities to Tweet your Senator or Representative.

There are state and local Friends groups supporting libraries all over the country. My own Friends of the Library in Montgomery County, MD, sponsors regular Literary Luncheons with current authors at the Mansion at Strathmore and lets members sport “I Love My Library” frames on their license plate.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina thrives because of friends too. In the beginning, Norway gave furniture for the reading halls. A university in Mexico donated CDs. Spain gave the new library a gift of valuable historical reports written in Arabic. Shanghai, China, donated books.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Alex-lib-outside-wall-SMALL.jpgAnd did you know there are more than three dozen International Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in countries all over the world, including chapters in California, Minnesota, Baltimore, Wisconsin, Florida, New Jersey and New York? Many of these organizations have been around since the Alexandria Library opened in 2002 and continue to donate books, funds for scholarships, software and expertise.

b2ap3_thumbnail_MNFriends_20130505-225338_1.pngMinnesota Friends of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, whose logo combines the Minnesota loon with the Egyptian lotus, is led by Egyptian scientist and inventor Aida Khalafalla. The Friends organization partners regularly with Books for Africa, an NGO dedicated to “ending the book famine in Africa,” in the belief that “literacy is quite simply the bridge from misery to hope.” Through Minnesota Friends, Books for Africa donates container shipments of books to the library in Alexandria – including one on its way to Egypt now.

Another particularly active chapter in California is led by Rosalie Amer, a former Fulbright librarian at the American University in Cairo and community college librarian and professor in California. She visited the Alexandrian construction site in 1994 and has been back almost every year since, often as a scribe for the International Friends association.

The Bibliotheca Alexandria website says “our friends raise more than money, they raise awareness of the library's value, raise their voices for peace, dialogue, and positive change, raise everyone's hope for a better tomorrow, and raise their hats for our success.” That is the mission of every friend of every library in the world. Won’t you be a library friend too?


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"All you need in life is truth and beauty and you can find both at the public library." Studs Terkel

On July 1, 1731, Ben Franklin and members of Junto, a philosophical debating association, formed a library. Each invested 40 shillings the first year and 10 more shillings each year thereafter to buy additional books. Their motto? “To support the common good is divine.”

American public libraries have been supporting the common good ever since. They are unique in the world in their breadth, their free access, their resources. There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the U.S. – a total of 16,766 including branches. To those who thought libraries might fade in importance with the advent of the Internet, surprise! Almost 89 percent of public libraries now offer wireless Internet access: an unmatched equalizer of opportunity.

Librarians in the nation’s public and academic libraries answer nearly 6.6 million questions weekly. Standing single file, the line of questioners would span from Ocean City, MD to Juneau, AK.


“My mother and father were illiterate immigrants from Russia,” writes the actor Kirk Douglas. “When I was a child they were constantly amazed that I could go to a building and take a book on any subject. They couldn’t believe this access to knowledge we have here in America. They couldn’t believe it was free.”

Every Library, a PAC for libraries, is working to keep it that way by raising funds to support local library campaigns around the country.

David Rubenstein is also working for libraries and literacy. The co-founder of the Carlyle Group and major donor to the Library of Congress is contributing $1.5 million over five years to three new annual literacy awards. “The public library my parents urged me to investigate as a child turned into a limitless source of information and amazement,” said Rubenstein when he announced his new awards program in December 2012. “For me, it opened a door to the universe.”

Beginning in 2013, three prizes will be awarded annually:

• The David M. Rubenstein Prize ($150,000), for a groundbreaking contribution to the sustained advancement of literacy by any individual or entity worldwide

• The American Prize ($50,000), for a project developed and implemented during the past decade with special emphasis on combating aliteracy (being able to read but uninterested in doing so).

• The International Prize ($50,000), for the work of an individual, nation or nongovernmental organization working in a specific country or region

Applications are due April 30. Application details are here. The first winners will be announced at the second annual International Summit of the Book in Singapore in August.

On a much smaller scale – but just as important to maintaining the vigor of our public libraries – three $1,000 Baker & Taylor Awards are given annually to Friends groups or Library Foundations for outstanding efforts to support their libraries. Applications are due May 1. Details are available from United for Libraries, which is also funding Citizens-Save-Libraries grants to provide training in local library advocacy.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Alex-lib-outside-wall-SMALL.jpgA pinnacle of library advocacy is celebrated in Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books, which prompted this Internet comment during the Egyptian protests of 2011: “The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is more than a modern repository for books. It is a phoenix rising from its own ashes, an historical monument to timeless wisdom in the face of armed conflict and religious fanaticism. It has been destroyed four times in history, and many of its priceless manuscripts lost forever; yet it stands again in our time, a monument not only to what we are, but to what we can be. Bravo.”

What makes you say “bravo” about your own public library? Please share your comments here. Celebrate National Library Week with us!

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This blog addresses an interesting aspect of Egyptian political life since the 2011 revolution - the perception of overseas Egyptians by Egyptians at home.  The article was  written by Dr. Maha Ebeid in Arabic for the Egyptian magazine,  7 Days, on March 5, 2013. It was translated and updated by Tharwat Abouraya. The lines of poetry at the end were translated by Dina Elmahdy. 

"Why did you come? Came to gloat at your country, your people and your homeland? Put your hands in cold water... do something to help your country instead of betraying it and looking for another!" Thus began my tongue-lashing without interruption. I gestured at him in anger but he returned it with a smile and said, "God bless you and good to see you too; I will tell you about the people who put their hands in cold water and then judge for yourself.” So I calmed down in shame from this uncivilized conversation… and I listened...

He’s Tharwat Abouraya, a friend of many years. He graduated from the Faculty of Arts, Alexandria University, Department of Geography, 1974, and ended up like many youth trying to find a job in Alexandria, near his family, but fate took him to Cairo to work with one of the tour operators. However, he decided to emigrate to America where he married Karen Leggett, who is an American, after a wonderful love story. She is a successful woman, works as a broadcaster in Voice of America, and formerly ABC Radio in Washington, D.C., now a journalist and author of children's books, including a book about Egypt, which is available in the Alexandria Library and American University book stores - Hands Around The Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books. (www.handsaroundthelibrary.com)

Tharwat is the father of Nadia, Assistant Stage Manager, ArtStream Theatre, and Adam, who works as a web developer with the famous Apple, Inc., in Cupertino, California. Tharwat polished his credentials in addition to his experience, and became an expert and Certified Travel Industry Executive in the development of global travel and tourism. This is what brings him to Egypt, every year accepting a courtesy call to the International Organization of the eTourism Industry, IOETI, which held its Fifth World Conference in Cairo December 18 to 19, 2012. He delivered a seminar on the future of e-marketing, and also a workshop on tourism marketing, which included e-tourism and dealing with the press in time of political instability.

I sat with Tharwat Abouraya to learn what the overseas Egyptians do for Egypt, and perhaps this would erase the horror of what I said to him in the beginning, and he said,

“In early 2012 we established a coalition of American - Egyptians to help Egypt, called the American Egyptian Strategic Alliance (AESA)*, based in Washington, DC. It is a non-governmental alliance of individuals including the chairman, Kais Menoufi, who took it upon himself to set establish the lobby with his personal resources. I (Tharwat) am considered among the founding members. I learned about it by chance in one of the gatherings at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC, through a friend, Dr. Amin Mahmoud, and since this time, I try to donate my time and my experience. There is also another important founding member of the Alliance, Dr. Ibrahim Oweis, who is a retired professor of political science at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, where he taught for 42 years. All members who created this coalition are American-Egyptians who love their country so seriously and some are American nationals who are relatives of the American-Egyptians.

“There are about 25 other Egyptian/American organizations in the United States, but all of them do not hold a government permit which gives them the right to exercise political pressure (lobbying), so mostly they raise money or send clothes to needy Egyptians or work in the field of education, such as scholarships for Egyptian students to come to the USA. AESA is considered the first legal lobby in the United States of America that cares about the relationship between American economic interests, as well as the political and strategic policies that impact the USA and Egypt.

“The established Alliance goal is to enable AESA to make American decision-makers aware of the common interests between America and Egypt, which will in turn benefit Egypt at the end. The Alliance supports decisions which lead to mutual prosperity, contributing to our positive relations and common interests.

“There is a long-time Jewish lobby in the USA AIPAC - The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee** - which enjoys the same lobbying rights, and over the years it has become a political force to be reckoned with. As I mentioned, we have started to publicize the American Egyptian Strategic Alliance in early 2012, meaning that within such a short period we cannot yet have the same influence.

“Recently, we have made contacts with more than one member of Congress to persuade them to reverse an effort by Congresswoman Kay Granger in the House of Representatives, chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee, to withhold Egypt's share of foreign aid - which amounts to $450 million! We followed a standard format to highlight the topic and its importance, and we have used telephone conversation talking points, faxes and emails, all with a unified message, to inform officials of the importance of reversing this plan to withhold financial assistance earmarked for Egypt.

“Also, Randa Fahmy Hadoma, Chief Legal Officer and Political Advisor for AESA, succeeded in appearing on many TV political shows and programs and having a great impact on the activities of the Alliance and its mission.

“The Alliance is still considered new and our short term goals are to increase the awareness of AESA and expand the number of active participants and members, increase the budget with financial donations, and expand the experiences and competencies of members of the Board of Directors of the Alliance.

“Our long term goals are for projects that would serve the Egyptian society, which is in need of immediate assistance, without the complications and bureaucracy of government-controlled decisions. I took a day trip to Cairo accompanied by my associate Heidi Abbass, Chief Operating Officer of the Alliance, to visit such successful independent projects, i.e. Nebny in Manshiet Nasser), and Renaissance Mahrousa -throughout Egypt).”

Before I comment on Tharwat’s conversation, I must say he objected to my beginning with a laugh, " O Maha, we love Egypt above what you could imagine, and no matter how far away we are and how we long we live abroad, we cannot forget our country. We see it in everything, and we live it in everything: even in our children names. Our loyalty to Egypt is very strong. Don’t doubt that we love Egypt!”

Of course that increased my embarrassment. I jumped to shake his hand firmly, apologizing and thanking him for explaining and making it clear to me that there are on the other side, Egyptians who still have vibrant love for Egypt. Tharwat Abouraya – Gulab Al Kahir – a rain maker. He left, but the verses I read some time ago by a person called Hussein did not leave me:

“Oh, Egypt, you dwell in my heart ... My beloved competes with my love for you.
I see you when she crosses my mind ... I see her once I see you”


*As a 501(c)(4) organization, AESA strives to assist American decision makers in defining and shaping U.S. policies towards Egypt, and encourages Egypt to further the creation and protection of a civil society based on the universal values of human dignity, democratic process, freedom of speech and individual rights.

**There is a growing diversity of opinion among the American Jewish population, including a highly publicized “AIPAC doesn’t speak for me” campaign by the Jewish Voice for Peace

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This has been a special week for Hands Around the Library. We have been honored with two awards –

2013 Notable Books for Global Studies by the International Reading Association (Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group)

2013 Best Books for Young Children by the Children’s Africana Book Award Committee

b2ap3_thumbnail_GlobalSociety.pngThe criteria for the Global Studies list highlight many of the messages we strive to share in this story of protestors joining together to protect their library: honoring and celebrating diversity as well as the common bonds of humanity and thought-provoking content that invites reflection, critical analysis, and response. Hands Around the Library has indeed been the springboard for discussions with children and adults about civic engagement, the importance of voting and fair elections, the value of peaceful protest and even using picture books to explain current events.



The Africana Book Awards “show that Africa is indeed a varied and multifaceted continent. CABA titles expand and enrich our perspectives of Africa beyond the stereotypical, ahistorical and exotic images that are emphasized in the West.” We are proud to be included in this group.

During a recent school presentation about Hands Around the Library in Silver Spring, Maryland, a father from Uganda expressed his appreciation for a positive story about Africa. One of my personal joys when sharing this story is the opportunity to show that Egypt is so much more than pyramids and mummies – fascinating as they are! I have been similarly pleased to see the book’s relevance beyond Egypt and even Africa. At the National Children’s Museum outside Washington, D.C. recently, a father from Albania was eager to share the book with his son because he could relate it to stories of his own country’s struggles.


It was also quite exciting for us to see Hands Around the Library highlighted at the Library of Congress when Alexandria Library Director Ismail Serageldin spoke on the “Loss and Rebirth of the Library of Alexandria” on March 8. An earlier version of Dr. Serageldin’s presentation is available on his website. He now includes Hands Around the Library in that presentation.

b2ap3_thumbnail_billington_hands_around_the-_library-2.jpgLibrarian of Congress James Billington showed several pages of the book with the audience noting that Dr. Serageldin “joined hands with the young people, explaining to them that the library isn’t something they can have as a target. Here he is again, joining hands and there is a remarkable thing. This building was surrounded by young people joining hands who were part of that whole event. It was an amazing phenomenon.”  See video.

Dr. Billington, by the way, is only the 13th Librarian of Congress since the Library was established in 1800. He and Dr. Serageldin have a long history of collaboration, most recently on the World Digital Library, a cooperative project of the Library of Congress, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and partner libraries. The Bibliotheca Alexandria is a key partner and contributor of digitized content, and Dr. Serageldin now chairs the Executive Council of the WDL. The World Digital Library brings together on a single website rare and unique documents – books, journals, manuscripts, maps, prints and photographs, films, and sound recordings – that tell the story of the world’s cultures. The site is intended for general users, students, teachers and scholars. The website is available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. The actual documents on the site are presented in their original languages.



Ismail Serageldinb2ap3_thumbnail_IMG_6054-2.jpg

We wish you a productive and enjoyable week -
and please check out our spring schedule of events so we can meet you!


Video by Tharwat Abouraya



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