American University in Cairo | Libraries and Learning Technologies, Rare Books and Special Collection Library

Walaa Tamraz

Research Services Officer, American University in Cairo

Irina Schmid

Instructor and Digital Collections Archivist, American University in Cairo

AUC Libraries and Learning Technologies, Rare Books and Special Collection Library

Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt

2022 UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize






RBSCL Mission, Collections and Subject Areas

In fulfilling the mission of the American University in Cairo (AUC) libraries, the Rare Books and Special Collections Library supports research and teaching by collecting, preserving, and disseminating primary sources about the culture, intellectual life, and society of Egypt, the Middle East, and globally.

RBSCL documents ancient, medieval, and modern Egypt and the wider region, with particular strengths in Egyptology, Islamic art and architecture, and travel literature. It collects archival and manuscript collections reflecting modern Egyptian social, cultural, and intellectual life.

The library contains the University's archives, maintaining records relating to its history dating to the early twentieth century; the Regional Architecture Collection (RAC), which preserves archival resources like plans, drawings, models, and other materials from many of Egypt and the Middle Eastrs"s leading 20th-century architects like Hassan Fathy, Ramses Wissa Wassef, Sayed Karim, Gamal Bakry, and others. The Digitisation Center provides high-quality digitisation services for library collection materials across various formats and contributes to major international digital initiatives such as the Arabic Collections Online project.



Founded in 1992, the Rare Books and Special Collections Library was created by combining other units at the American University in Cairo. One of the predecessors was the library of the universityrs"s Center for Arabic Studies (formerly the School of Oriental Studies). The core of that repository was the Creswell Library, the personal book and photograph collections of Sir K.A.C. Creswell, one of the pioneering figures studying Islamic art and architecture. Creswell offered his library to AUC in the 1950s. Since its foundation, the RBSCL kept growing, and personal libraries of prominent bibliophiles, intellectuals, and Egyptologists enlarged its collections. The RBSCL gradually expanded its focus on special collections. As early as the 1970s and 1980s, AUC library units had accepted document collections. However, it was in the mid-1990s that the RBSCL began to build significant collections of archives and personal papers, like those of Egyptrs"s leading 20th-century architect Hassan Fathy. From that time, the library made steady acquisitions of archival resources documenting Egyptian history, culture, and society, another landmark acquisition being the Van-Leo photograph collection in 2000.




Doing Research at the RBSCL

The Rare Books and Special Collections Library welcomes research use of its holdings by researchers from a distance and on-site users. It offers various research services and guidance for undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members, and researchers to help them plan the research, explore and access the RBSCL collections and make the best use of the materials offered. 


Care of Collections and Conservation

The Rare Books and Special Collections Library maintains its collections under storage and climate conditions following best practices worldwide. Books and archives are stored in temperature and humidity-controlled spaces, with rare books and archival materials secured in storage rooms. Materials do not circulate outside the library, with the exception of some reserve items. In addition to the main reading room for open-stack books, the library has spaces for researchers to consult rare materials with security guards and surveillance cameras present at all times.


The Digitization Center (DC)

Digitisation of cultural heritage materials changes how collections are used and accessed. As people get their information more and more online, they expect to find almost everything on the digital platform. Yet much of modern and historical knowledge still exists only in physical formats and is stored in archives and libraries, and by using the technology and expertise, the Digitisation Center (DC) transforms RBSCL material generating e-material and substituting physical works for digital copies. The DC also scans fragile items, which makes those items widely and safely used. The DC put lots of effort into developing digital surrogates of rare or delicate original objects and giving access, ensuring that the original is not damaged by handling.


Benefits of Digitization

Building the digital library changes the learning culture at AUC; it generates a healthy system that engages students, faculties, and researchers. The historical materials are being widely used for teaching and study, and by building a digital library collection, the Center unlocks analogue collections for a new generation of learners, enabling free, long-term, public access to knowledge.

As the RBSCL has a rich array of content, the Centerrs"s technologies and know-how help to make modern and historical digital content transmitted worldwide. Yet, bringing universal access to all historical material at the RBSCL is not always possible or feasible. The most common challenges are money, technology, and sometimes legal clarity. As the DC and RBSCLrs"s role is to provide free access to information, our path to it is to work together, including many stakeholders, who are curators, academics, and donors, so we can efficiently achieve our vision and release the total value of our existing and future collections by offering them digitally.



Reaching Digitization Goals

The RBSCL and the Digitization Center's goal is to build a robust system to circulate unique collections to millions and create an electronic image of every item in our collection. As we shifted from analogue to digital learning, the RBSCL and the DC started working on digital preservation strategies. Our step forward was acquiring the digital preservation platform LIBNOVA; now, we can safeguard the AUC research and cultural heritage and protect our content in a better way: organizing, presenting, and preserving the great works of humankind.

Our next goal is to bring the full breadth of past and present material to millions of readers via our websites and online catalogues. Hopefully, we will be able to find a way to open collections that have restrictive terms. It has the advantage that it fuels innovation, dissemination, and the broad public good. We believe that building the core collection and offering unrestricted access to digital collections ensures positive changes in academic areas, such as providing various syllabi and stimulating teaching material, which in turn develops students with an inquisitive mind, one that is curious and seeks out new knowledge.


Winning the UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize, 2022

In a prestigious ceremony held at Cheongju city, and in the presence of Dr Khaled Abdul-Rahman, Egyptian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, the Rare Books and Special Collections Library received the 2022 UNESCO/Jikji Memory of the World Prize for decades of heritage preservation work. In its recommendation, the international jury of experts unanimously recognized the unique expertise and outstanding work of the RBSCL in preserving and enabling access to Egyptian documentary heritage of global significance. The prize honours an individual or institution for their contributions toward keeping and making accessible recorded history, known as ld"documentary heritagerd"—the quintessential function of the RBSCL at AUC.

Our vision is to keep acquiring the best collections, digitizing resources, unlocking analogue collections for the present and a new generation of learners, and enabling digital access to unique items. We work with colleagues, departments, and different organisations in different countries to explore approaches regarding access, preservation, and digitisation and find ways to distribute digitised collections to ensure the longevity of the valuable materials in our library.


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