Street Library provides Egyptians in Cairo with knowledge for free

Different genres. The Street Library bookcases are made of recycled wood. (Provided by Marwa al-A’sar)

2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 22

The Arab Weekly
Marwa al-A’sar

Cairo - Mohamed, a second­ary school student, spent hours browsing through the novels at Maktabet el-Sharei — the Street Library — on a quiet street in Cairo. He said reading is an enjoyable way to spend the sum­mer holiday. He finally chose a book but before borrowing it he had to donate one of his own to the library.

“My friends and I visit that beau­tiful place regularly to read and borrow books. The people who cre­ated this service should be thanked every day,” said Mohamed, who asked to be identified only by his first name.

To borrow books from the Street Library a person needs to pay 30 Egyptian pounds (about $1.60) an­nually, provide a photograph in which he or she smiles and donate one book. The library, which has no doors, is open 24/7 for anybody to read for free with no supervision.

The Street Library, the first of its kind in Egypt, was initiated by Malaz Group as part of its corpo­rate social responsibility efforts. Officials at Malaz, a marketing and advertising company, said the pur­pose of the library is to encourage Egyptians to read.

The place is built in the shape of a tent and includes stands and book­shelves made of recycled wood displaying volumes of different genres. The Street Library offers a variety of books: From classics to contemporary novels to self-help books in English and Arabic.

The project started four years ago with about 300 books donated by the Malaz employees. It developed into its current shape through the donations of people in the neigh­bourhood and now offers more than 2,000 volumes for borrowing.

The Street Library is in Maadi, an upper-middle class suburb of Cairo. However, a lower-middle class dis­trict is not far away.

“We try to link the two worlds. The library is quite popular. Our main clients are university stu­dents, high school and middle school students and citizens above the age of 50,” Malaz owner Ahmed el-Salawi said.

“Most of our visitors from the lower-middle class are teenagers. It made us build a special section and buy books for teenagers.”

“Since culture and art reflect the people’s image, we found ourselves under an obligation to contribute to the colouring of this image,” Sa­lawi said while instructing workers building new shelves for the library.

“We, as a marketing company, use the same techniques of mar­keting commercial products to promote knowledge and reading. There is a deficiency in marketing cultural products and activities in Egypt, which are mostly handled through the state.”

In 2012, Malaz initiated “Project Read,” which was the impetus for the Street Library. The company created the model of a street library and called on people to apply it anywhere. It could be set up at the entrance of a building or a garden.

“We frequently receive messages from people in other provinces ask­ing for advice on how to emulate the project,” Salawi said.

“To be able to apply the street library model, the following three principles should be followed: Free knowledge, not everything we read is true or truthful and street library is the library of all people,” he said, noting that people in the neigh­bourhood or close by eventually donate books and better stock the library.

“Because many books are re­peated, the Street Library will offer a stand for people to replace their own books with ours,” he added.

Leaving the library unattended and open to the public carries risks.

“However, the incidents of rob­beries have been very rare,” Salawi said. “We are still testing the project as we plan to develop the library and equip it with more shelves and books.”

To encourage passers-by to stop at stands, the Street Library offers “snack books” — small books con­taining excerpts or quotes from cer­tain works. The concept is similar to taste-testing, during which ad­vertising agents at shopping malls and other public places offer a small taste of their products as part of a marketing campaign.

“People afterward find it benefi­cial to sit and read. We use all mar­keting techniques to promote the library. It is the same as marketing a food product but, in this case, we feed people with knowledge for free,” Salawi added.

Marwa al-A’sar is a Cairo-based journalist.

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