Conservation and preservation policy at the national library of Egypt (Dār al-kutub)

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Mahmoud F. Hegazi

The nature and scope of preservation problems
Preservation plan

> The relevance
> Staff training
> The establishment of a Unit for Arabic Manuscripts in the Information Centre of the National Library
> The editions of manuscript collections
Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo


Since July 1994, the National Library has constituted one of four main sectors of the new Egyptian government agency, which is also responsible for public libraries, the state archive and relevant scientific centres. The collections of books, manuscripts and other media in Dār al-Kutub and the archival collections in Dār al­-Wathā'iq are the most important throughout the Arab world. Dār al-Kutub was established in 1870, and was incorporated in the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) in 1971. The state archive and five specialised research centres were also affiliated for about 20 years with the state-owned publishing house. The problems arising during those years were due to the great diversity of interests and activities; they led to a change in organisation within the Ministry of Culture. In July 1994, the National Library and Archives were decreed an automonous agency, in charge of preservation of cultural heritage, and modernisation of library procedures and services to fulfill the needs of users. This paper presents a report on the conservation and restoration of this major collection of the world's documentary heritage. Emphasis will be on policy, problems, projects, and international co-operation.

The National Library of Egypt has by far the biggest collection of manuscripts in the entire Arab world. In Egypt, the main manuscript collections are:

  1. 60,000 in the National Library (established 1870);
  2. 30,000 in Al-Azhar Library (established 1897);
  3. 4,000 in the Municipal library of Alexandria(established 1892);
  4. 6,000 in university libraries at Cairo and Alexandria;
  5. 3,000 in public libraries and mosques in the Delta and Upper Egypt.

The collections of Dār al-Kutub constitute about 60 per cent of the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian manuscripts in Egypt. The core collection was formed in 1870 by gathering manuscripts from mosques, educational institutions, Islamic endowments, and palaces. In the last 125 years of its existence, Dār al-Kutub has acquired several collections mainly by donations. There are the Qawalla Library, Al-Khizāna al-Taymūrīya, Maktabat al­Shanqīṭī, Maktabat al-Ḥusaynī, Maktabat Ṭal͑at, Maktabat al­Shaykh Muḥammad ͑Abduh, al-Maktaba al-Zakīya, Maktabat Ḥalīm Pasha, Maktabat Khalīl Āghā and Maktabat Makram collections. The donated collections have grown over those years to comprise about 50 per cent of all manuscript acquisitions. Furthermore, it must be mentioned that our collection of Arabic papyri has been estimated at about 3,000.

In the history of work in Dār al-Kutub on Islamic manuscripts, there are some relevant dates:

1888Catalogue of Arabic books (the old catalogue).
1914The first critical editions of classical Arabic books.
1924-37Catalogue of Arabic books (nine volumes).
1952The establishment of the manuscript department.
1956Catalogue of manuscripts on Muṣṭalaḥ al-Ḥadīth.
1961Catalogue of Arabic manuscripts (in three volumes, acquisitions 1937-55).
1963Catalogue of Persian manuscripts (two volumes).
1964Bibliography of microfilms (two parts).
1968Descriptive catalogue of illuminated Persian manuscripts.
1968The establishment of the Centre for Editing Classical Arabic Heritage.
1972The establishment of the Centre for Restoration.
1980Catalogue of manuscripts on astronomy.
1994The plan for the new Centre for Restoration.

The collections of the historical archives of Egypt are closely related to the manuscripts in their relevance to the socio-cultural and political history of Egypt and the Arab countries, and their relations to other regions. About 175,000 archival units, in more than five million pages, are mainly in Arabic and Turkish, also in French, English, Italian, and German. Those documents also have preservation needs.

The nature and scope of preservation problems

The fact-finding studies of 1992-94, done by Egyptian scientists and an American consultant on conservation and restoration, have dealt with evaluation of collections, their storage, and gave basic recommendations. The evaluation included environmental conditions, disaster preparedness, stack maintenance, reformatting (conversion to another format such as microfilm or digital imaging), protective enclosure, conservation treatment, mass deacidification, binding, and repair. Like many other significant research collections throughout the world, Egyptian museums and archives are threatened by a variety of problems, including the lack of adequate preservation facilities suited to this sub-tropical area and to our over-populated and polluted capital.

In the last 25 years, certain methods were used in dealing with deteriorating materials:

  1. Transferring some of the manuscripts to a more durable medium such as microfilm.
  2. Attempting to preserve the manuscripts by careful, time-consuming manual restoration treatments.
  3. Routinely fogging collections to eliminate insects.
  4. Using silica crystals to reduce humidity levels.

Up to 1995, there was in the manuscript and microfilm department neither a climate-controlled vault, nor an HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) system. In the past, it was not customary to heat or cool public libraries or museums in Egypt. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity are causing additional stress to manuscripts and archival collections.

Air pollution is a severe problem in Cairo, with some 15 million people, cars, and small industries. The air pollution laboratory, a unit of the Restoration Centre, is studying the effects and investigating treatment options.

The conservation laboratory has a relatively limited range of treatment. About 18 per cent of the library items are at great risk rare books, and periodicals, but no work is being done on the papyri collection. The Restoration Centre of the National Library is responsible for preservation problems in all the public and university libraries in Egypt.

Library binding processes are manual, and produce fewer than 400 volumes annually. With manuscripts, rebinding in leather is done for very few volumes whose original bindings have deteriorated.

Preservation plan

The National Library of Egypt places an emphasis now for the first time in its history on prevention as well as treatment. Therefore, measures are now in the process of realisation. Climate control in storage areas for manuscripts and archives has been installed. The objectives are to control temperature and relative humidity without fluctuations, provide adequate air filtration and ventilation, and protection from ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. Improving conditions of storage through controlled climate is a basic requirement in protecting manuscripts. Improving housing of microfilm collections by storing them in similarly controlled climatic conditions is also planned.

The Centre for Restoration and Microfilm in the National Library is now under construction. It is a Spanish-Egyptian bilateral project. Egypt is responsible for the infrastructure of the building. The Spanish aid is allotted to equipment and staff training. The centre has about 1,440 square metres on the fourth floor of the National Library building on the Nile. The distribution of this area is:

  1. Administration, 228 square metres
  2. Laboratories (chemistry, biology, physics, entomology, etc), 396 square metres
  3. Restoration area, 432 square metres

The Centre is supposed to be inaugurated in the spring of 1996.

In the Preservation policy of the National Library, priority is given to the following categories in the following order:

  1. The manuscripts of the Holy Qur͗ān.
  2. Illuminated manuscripts.
  3. Other manuscripts.
  4. Rare books and periodicals.

The plan also includes the duplication of materials to another form: microfilm or reprints. Reformatting, in this case, means that manuscripts should be filmed or digitalised in order to retire the original from direct use. The reformatting project of the National Library includes three main systems:

  1. Developing a good microfilm system that includes production and acquisition of films, bibliographic control, adequate long term storage, and the acquisition of new laboratory equipment, and microfilm readers.
  2. Initiating a long-term programme for imaging all manuscript and archival material to be made available to users in the National Library and Archives.
  3. Initiating a programme to make selected manuscripts available on Compact Disc (CD).

To limit direct use of manuscripts, users are advised more and more to use microfilms and encouraged to take photoprints from microfilms. Reduced charges have been introduced for photoprints.

The Centre for Restoration will carry out orientation and training of users, librarians, and technical staff to demonstrate proper handling of manuscripts and other rare documents, e.g. how to support a book and how to exhibit materials. The Centre will also sponsor seminars, workshops, and lectures on preservation issues for senior administrators, conservators, and technical staff.

A committee of consultants has been appointed to focus on specifications for preservation, to research relevant topics, to train personnel and supervise work.


> The relevance

A truly effective preservation programme can only operate in the boarder cultural context of the National Library’s overall mission. The relevance of its collections is not confined to Egypt; it includes the Islamic heritage in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and is closely related to Graeco-Roman and Afro-Asian traditions. Preservation activities are, to a great extent, dependant on co-operation in preservation efforts on a global scale.

International co-operation with the National Library will also be of importance to all other public and university libraries in Egypt. The National Library has to fulfill its functions in preservation all over Egypt.

The manuscripts, papyri, archives, and rare books must be properly preserved and restored.

The library services in the National Library have to be available through a network of libraries and specialised centres in other countries.

To assist the library in its preservation challenge, funding consultancy, expertise, and joint projects are expected. International support is essential for implementing these plans.

> Staff training

The training of specialists in conservation, restoration, and related fields is a multiple-stage undertaking. Some training courses can be offered in Egypt. Selected staff will then be trained abroad.

In order to prepare trainees, relevant documents and guidelines on international standards have to be properly translated into Arabic.

Workshops have to be provided for different target groups:

  1. Librarians in administrative positions who make decisions on preservation priorities.
  2. Preservation officers should be trained in environmental control, specifications, and practices of preservation, proper protection of material, and also in collection evaluation.
  3. Technical staff should be trained in electronic imaging for reformatting projects. This might involve scanning manuscripts and archival materials into a database, creating an access copy, while also producing a hard-copy for preservation purposes.
  4. Trained staff will be given priority to be recruited into international projects. The highly trained staff will constitute the Unit for Training.

> The establishment of a Unit for Arabic Manuscripts in the Information Centre of the National Library

One of the main components of the Information Centre is Arabic manuscripts. The core would be the collections in Egyptian libraries. The objective of this Centre is twofold:

  1. To establish an electronic information network among academic and public libraries and research centres to provide on-line services to users.
  2. To link this network to other international research and academic networks in Arab and Muslim countries and in Europe and America.

While the infrastructure can be provided out of Egyptian funds, international aid is expected to cover equipment, computer aided services, CD facilities, training of technical staff, etc.

> The editions of manuscript collections

The National Library and Archives of Egypt possess a treasury of cultural history in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other languages.

A core collection of 100 volumes is the initial stage of a large scale project, which includes the facsimile editions on paper and also CDROM.

The selection of manuscripts will be done by a committee of scholars with international qualifications.

The whole project is expected to include 1,000 volumes over ten years.

The collections should cover:

  • The Holy Qur͗ān (Maṣāḥif)
  • Basic books on Arabic and Islamic culture
  • Main works on tafsīr and Ḥadīth
  • Arabic collections of poetry
  • History of science and medicine
  • Humanities in Islamic culture
  • Persian literature
  • Turkish literature
  • The Graeco-Roman legacy in Arabic
  • Arabic reference work
  • Illuminated manuscripts
  • Corpus of Arabic calligraphy

These volumes will provide institutes of Arabic studies all over the world with a very good representative collection, on paper or on CDROM or both. At the same time, this project is one way to preserve manuscripts and to make their contents available to scholars, not only in the National Library, but in interested libraries all over the world.

Source note:

This article was published in the following book:
The Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Manuscripts, Proceedings of the third conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 18th-19th November 1995 - English version, 1995, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 7-14.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.
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