In Box

Egypt’s Digital Haven?

Ongoing conflict in the Middle East forced the postponement of the celebratory grand opening of Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt — a revival of the country’s famed library — planned for last April. But the recent fighting didn’t slow the library’s headfirst foray into cyberspace. In April, Bibliotheca began offering the public access to over 100 ...

Ongoing conflict in the Middle East forced the postponement of the celebratory grand opening of Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt — a revival of the country’s famed library — planned for last April.

But the recent fighting didn’t slow the library’s headfirst foray into cyberspace. In April, Bibliotheca began offering the public access to over 100 trillion bytes of data via its Web site (www.bibalex.org) — including snapshots of 10 billion Web pages dating back to 1996. The digital collection, stored on some 200 computers, was a gift from the Internet Archive (www.archive.org), a nonprofit hoping to preserve copies of every Web page ever published.

Brewster Kahle, the archive’s cofounder and director, hopes his gift will head off future intellectual catastrophes. Kahle notes that many of the ancient library’s holdings were unique copies. At least 40,000 volumes of the world’s early literature were lost forever in a fire when the Romans seized Egypt’s second-largest city. "It behooves us to think about how to avoid this problem this time around," says Kahle, whose company maintains a duplicate of the digital archive at its San Francisco, headquarters. "Having copies in different cultural contexts can help ensure longevity."

Digital technology will also help Bibliotheca reestablish its predecessor’s "legal deposit rights," an ancient principle whereby the original library was entitled to make a copy of every book that entered Egypt. Texts were seized at the port and painstakingly transcribed onto papyrus before being returned. Now, just a single mouse click is required. Kahle downplays the politics of the donation, but nurturing the public domain is of special interest to the Internet Archive, which opposes tighter copyright restrictions.

But some observers of the region, including Helena Smith, a writer for London’s Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk), have questioned the wisdom of placing such an important digital collection in Egypt. The country has a history of imprisoning politically and religiously controversial writers, and its Interior Ministry still monitors the Internet for "ethical infractions." In fact, in June 2002, Egyptian authorities sentenced a man for posting a poem written by his late father containing language critical of government actions during Egypt’s 1967 war with Israel. Aware of these concerns, Bibliotheca Director Ismail Serageldin stresses that Cairo’ s censors will never meddle with the archived Web pages. His only boss, he insists, is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak himself.

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