Feature: Alexandria Library breathes again

What kind of passions can the new Alexandria Library evoke after it opens in April? A lust to learn? Absolutely, where there is knowledge, people will flock. But it has already inspired other passions: the love for huge buildings, large-scale projects and masterly tailored design and solutions. The library has inspired passions with considerable ancient history, least in Egypt.

Visiting can turn into a treasure hunt. We will treat you to an imaginary tour with both basic and behind-the-scenes information you would mostly miss on a real visit.

Let’s say you just arrived at the library. On the side facing the University of Alexandria, a rounded wall rises 33 metres. It is described as the largest reinforced diaphragm wall in the world and is covered with 7000 blocks of light granite with engraved symbols from the writing systems of different civilizations.

The main entrance is to the left. As you approach, you enter a paved yard – the Plaza of Culture – that is in the area between the library, the conference centre and the planetarium with its underground science museum. All are part of the new library complex.

Cross the yard and walk down towards the Eastern Harbor and you get a view of the other side of the library, allowing you to admire the huge glass roof and the way the building seems to lean into the ground.

But wait a minute. There is no fence around the area. Someone can walk around just like that, so what does the library do about security? The answer is, they have their eyes on you. Security staff watch over the area from a room inside the building. There are 120 cameras both inside and outside the building, including the public elevators and the underground car park. Staff can manoeuvre a camera placed on the roof of the conference centre and zoom in on anything suspicious.

Now, let’s enter. As you pass the electronic security check at the front door and reach the reception area, the first thing you will need is a membership card. Library staff at one of the counters will take your photo with a digital camera connected directly to a card machine and the computer for registration. Say cheese! At press time, fees had not yet been decided.

You need just one more thing before entering the actual library area to look for books, DVDs, information in full-text databases or something else. You need to know how to do it. Although you may be a whiz with computers, staff at the training counter will introduce you to the Online Public Access Catalog, which is part of the Virtua Integrated Library System, a library management system from VTLS Inc. used by the library. It is a UNIX-based client-server system. The interface for the library has been translated into Arabic, but it is also available at the library in English and French.

VILS is integrated with other systems such as Multimedia View for audio, video or still pictures. This means you work with one interface, but if you look up, for instance, Shakespeare, you will find titles of books and references to periodicals as well as pictures (which can be the image of a document), movies and audio recordings. If you decide to access something with sound, you will have to go to a dedicated part of the library. This is intended as a silent library. There will be a special music library and a section for audio, visual and multimedia.

Entering the library centre is a stunning experience. The eleven terraced floors open up into a huge space. Visitors who come to admire the building can do so from a special balcony, but as a regular visitor you catch the best view from the periodicals section where you can see all the way up to the top level as well as down to the bottom floor.

The shelves have room for eight million books but look mostly empty, and only 200,000 titles will be available at the opening in April. Following the same pattern, there will initially be 650-700 computer terminals throughout the library, but outlets are provided for 2286. In addition to visible reading material, the library has a collection of digital documents and subscriptions to full-text, abstract and bibliographic databases.

So what do you want to read? Find the section of your interest, search for a title, author or subject on one of the PCs or ask at the information desk. The VILS will give a brief description, and if it is a book or a periodical, it will tell you where to find it on the shelves. You can pick it out and then head for a seat at one of the desks.

Librarians use the library management system for many of their tasks. VILS has sections for acquisitions, cataloging, circulation, reports and periodicals. It also allows exchange of bibliographic records between libraries using the Z39.50 standard. In fact, librarians’ tasks have changed from mainly managing in-house collections to finding any type of information available around the world. Researchers can do the same, depending on their skills and access to databases.

“It is a globally integrated system. It means you don’t have to go to another library to find something,” said Noha Adly. She specializes in databases and heads the computer department. Adly has been a consultant for the library for the last four years and is on a sabbatical from a position at the Computer Science Department of The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alexandria. When PC World visited, she was busy finishing some of the general planning and a pilot of VILS was running on one server. The public could try some of the features as the library was open temporarily to visitors for a few weeks after the soft opening in October. After the inauguration, 20 servers will connect to the network. The LAN runs on fiber-optic cable and Ethernet (a LAN access method) connects the whole library complex. Gega Net supplies the connection to the World Wide Web.

Adly said the public would also have access to library services over the Internet. It will be possible to browse catalogues and download items from the digitized collections. Other member services will depend on the response from the public. For instance, it is possible to let researchers reserve study rooms, but other libraries have found that people make bookings and never show up. The Library of Congress in the United States, The British Library and the French Biblioth