Tuesday, February 11, 2014

U.S. libraries should make a major donation of books to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a modern effort to recreate the fabled Library of Greco-Roman  Alexandria. In Ptolomaic times it had the largest collection of books in the world. The idea of recreating the library came from the University of Alexandria in 1974, and a competition for the design of the buildings was organized by UNESCO in 1988.

The modern library is trilingual, containing books in Arabic, English and French. In 2010, the library received a generous donation of 500,000 books from the National Library of France, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). The gift makes the Bibliotheca Alexandrina the sixth-largest Francophone library in the world.

It would be a wonderful gesture of good will to the people of Egypt for the people of the United States to make a comparable donation of books to the library. It would be especially great to do this now, while the Congress is denying U.S. funding to UNESCO; a donation to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina would show support for UNESCO's mission of building defenses of peace in the minds of men.

While English language books would seem to be the obvious counterpart to the gift from the French, there might well be collections of books in Arabic in this country that would be welcomed.

Gifts of books to the library should be carefully coordinated with the its staff. It is costly for a library to organize, store and catalog new accessions, and any library will want to select its collection. Ideally organizations such as the Library of Congress or university libraries might make contributions. Perhaps some organization such as the American Library Association or the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO might assume leadership in such an effort.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Monument Men led to UNESCO's Culture Program

The movie described in the trailer and a book (The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel) describe the efforts made by an American led Allies team to protect art treasures during World War II. The men involve risked their lives (and two died in the effort) to keep world heritage safe during combat. The effort continued to recovering the artistic treasures that had been appropriated by the Axis forces as spoils of war, or that had been confiscated as what they considered "degenerate art".

In a radical departure from the practice of other victors in other wars, the western Allies after World War II chose to return the works of art that they had managed to rescue to their countries of origin.

Of course, after the War the western Allies led in the creation of UNESCO, which had among its early functions helping the museum community in Europe to rebuild and reorganize. UNESCO quickly established international conventions to protect cultural heritage threatened by war, to prevent the international trafficking in stolen cultural heritage, and to protect World Heritage.