AUC’S Rare Books and Special Collections Library Preserves Local and International Heritage

The conservation of the cultural and historical heritage of Egypt and the region has been one of the main objectives of The Rare Books and Special Collection Library (RBSCL) at The American University in Cairo (AUC) since its creation in 1992. In addition to housing stellar collections of rare books, documents, manuscripts, photographs and archival collections from Egypt, the Middle East and other parts of the world, the RBSCL strives to preserve these for posterity while increasing their accessibility through digitization and an active conservation program.

RBSCL has benefited through the years from generous donors whose gifts of book, photographic and document collections are the core of the holdings.  Starting with the Islamic art and architecture books and photographs assembled by Sir K.A.C. Creswell during his more than half-century researching and documenting Egypt’s architectural and artistic heritage, followed by the arrival of the Max Debbane and Egyptology book collections of Selim Hassan, Labib Habashi and other scholars, the collections have continued to expand. “Donors have been willing to give to the RBSCL because they know we will assure the survival of what they entrust to us,” says Daad Abdel Razik, associate director for collections and services. “We put these to good use by giving them a second life as scholarly resources for researchers.”Acquisition of the architectural drawings and other archives of Hassan Fathy in 1994 was the beginning of what has now become the Regional Architecture Collection containing thousands of architectural drawings and models from contemporary artist and architect Rameses Wissa Wassif and architects Sayid Karim, Kamal Amin and Gamal Bakry.

In the book collections, over 12,000 volumes as well as many personal artefacts, medals, memorabilia, photographs and other documents were donated by the family of celebrated journalist Anis Mansour. Father Pierre Riches donated 20,000 books from his personal library, many of them autographed by their authors. Only last year Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations and distinguished scholar and diplomat donated over 15,000 books in several languages as well as numerous photograph albums and other documents representing his diplomatic life and professional accomplishments.  Also recently arrived is the multifaceted collection from the estate of artist Margo Veillon: drawings, correspondence and thousands of photographs documenting family travels in the early 20th century. “Securing such collections is essential to the mission of the RBSCL, and the University itself, which seeks to promote research on topics unique to Egypt and the region,” explained Philip Croom, associate dean for the Rare Books and Special Collections Library. “We have the best of both worlds: a tremendous collection of rare, old materials, and original documents of contemporary life in Egypt that have not been published, and are unique to our library,” he said. “We are creating collections that will assist scholars in doing original research.”

In order to preserve and make these intellectual assets available, the RBSCL has two active programs. One is to preserve them digitally and make them available as the Rare Books and Special Collections Digital Library. RBSCL’s archivists, librarians, conservators and information technologists work collaboratively to build the RBSCDL for several reasons. Not only do digital collections provide global access to rare materials, they also protect items too fragile to withstand handling by researchers. Thus online archives preserve delicate materials while at the same time providing digital surrogates in case of disaster. “Libraries have to endeavor to make digital surrogates of their documents and other archival collections because they may contain unique information available in no other format,” said Croom. “With digital surrogates securely online or on our servers, documents are preserved forever,” he explained.    

Among the unique collections already in the RBSCDL is a photograph album of the Alexandria Bombardment of 1882 originally compiled by Italian photographer Luigi Fiorillo documenting the British naval attack on Urabi Pasha's nationalists, who revolted against Tawfik Pasha, Khedive of Egypt.  Furthermore, the RBSCDL has digitized 101 photographs documenting 19th century Egyptian culture and the history of travel in the Middle East, commissioned at the time by the Underwood & Underwood Publishing Company. “This collection has been prioritized in the digitization program because it is comprehensive, well-documented in several languages and covers a remarkably broad range of subjects,” said Ola Seif, Curator of Photographic Collections at AUC. “The Underwood & Underwood Egypt Stereo Views collection, that includes around 25,000 items, encompasses a wide geographic scope, including the Nile River, Suez Canal towns and the Egyptian deserts.” 

Other photographic collections are being converted, most notably that of celebrated artistic photographer Van-Leo. There is also the ongoing effort to digitize the architectural collections of Hassan Fathy, Rameses Wissa Wassif, Gamal Bakry, Sayid Karim, Kamal Amin and others in the Regional Architectural Collection. 

In addition to the digitization of its documents, AUC’s RBSCL is making great strides in conserving the unique documents themselves, the physical relics of Egypt’s most recent past. Established in 1995, the RBSCL’s Conservation Laboratory is responsible for the treatment and preservation of materials in all formats in the library’s collections. “Repairing books requires re-binding and re-casing with archival, acid-free paper, cloth, and sometimes restoring leather, and consolidation of text blocks,” said Mohamed Abu Bakr, head conservator. Stain and mold removal are performed when necessary. “Fragile items like architectural plans and drawings must be cleaned, flattened, repaired and encapsulated in archival polyester sleeves. The latter make fragile paper almost eternal by encapsulating the worn paper in flexible plastic that make it pliable and safe to handle. “The library is also engaged in extensive photograph conservation work, which includes chemical cleaning, mending, removing and replacing backings for vintage prints, encapsulating with acid-free polyester sleeves, and storing in archival albums and clam-shell boxes,” he said. These processes are assuring that the original objects survive and continue to serve as unique documentation. 

The RBSCL has one more very effective project for conserving intellectual and cultural history that should be mentioned: its Oral History Program. This program has two parts: one is documenting the history of the University through interviews with the professors, students, leadership and staff.  A second effort is recording the personal histories of men and women whose life stories are the history of Egypt. Both programs are under the direction of University Archivist Stephen Urgola and the intent in both cases is to assemble unique accounts of life in Egypt that can offer researchers insight into the world these people knew and in which recent history has been made. “There is also a time imperative,” says Urgola. “A generation is rapidly disappearing and if we do not record their memories now, they risk being lost forever.” 

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Founded in 1919, The American University in Cairo (AUC) is a leading English-language, American-accredited institution of higher education and center of the intellectual, social, and cultural life of the Arab world. It is a vital bridge between East and West, linking Egypt and the region to the world through scholarly research, partnerships with academic and research institutions and study abroad programs. 

The University offers 40 undergraduate, 52 master’s and two PhD programs rooted in a liberal arts education that encourages students to think critically and find creative solutions to conflicts and challenges facing both the region and the world. 

An independent, nonprofit, politically non-partisan, non-sectarian and equal opportunity institution, AUC is fully accredited in Egypt and the United States.