January 15, 2016

Egyptian government launches the world’s largest digital library


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Last November the Egyptian government announced that it would soon launch the world’s largest digital library, the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB), and according to Good e-Reader’s Michael Kozlowski, on January 10th, the el-Sisi government delivered.

The EKB—for those of us who were maybe paying more attention to this same government’s not-so-tolerant purges against intolerance and censorship tactics last year—is a state-funded open source library made available for free to anyone with an Egyptian IP address. The digital library, which is being touted as the world’s largest—though as of right now we don’t actually know how many items are in its collection—holds costly subscriptions to a number of major publishers such as Springer Nature, National Geographic, Discovery, Elsevier, Cambridge, Oxford, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Reuters.

According to a statement from Egypt’s State Information Services (SIS), the collection is far-reaching, and made up of “scientific courses in all fields of information like electronic books and magazines, educational syllabus for schools and universities, databases, browsers, digital libraries for videos and pictures along with computer programs in the field of sports and more.”

The statement continues, declaring the ultimate goal of the EKB as to build “a civilized well-educated society through getting all kinds of human sciences available for every Egyptian citizen.” The statement reads:

This EKB is designed in a way that all factions of society with various specializations and interests and ages should benefit from, in order to develop scientific research for researchers, human knowledge for youth, promote teaching methods for teachers and develop ways to attract students to learn. The EKB is Egypt’s spring on the path of progress and global competition in the age of science and information.

This all sounds very, very good! But the project is not without its problems. As reported by Pesha Magid for Mada Masr upon the announcement of the project, some academics are not convinced that all Egyptians will actually be able to make use of the resource, citing accessibility issues and language barriers:

49.6 of Egypt’s 90 million citizens are internet users, which is a relatively high percentage of the population. But some educators worry that most people won’t be able to take advantage of the bank because the majority of its databases are in English.

That language barrier will pose a “huge” obstacle to the project’s goals, according to Seif Abu Zeid, a founder of the recently closed Tahrir Academy.

“There is a lot of emphasis that this will be made available to 90 million Egyptians, but most don’t speak English,” concurred Farida Makar, a researcher in education history.

In response to the language barrier problem, Joyce Rafla, a member of the Presidential Specialized Council for Education and Scientific Research, stated that the government is aware of the problem and working to ensure that English-language materials are also available in Arabic. This sounds like a monumental undertaking, but Rafla notes that “Britannica [already] has content in Arabic that will help,” and “Other databases agreed that they will arabize some of their content.”

Another issue the project faces is sustainability. Academic publisher subscriptions are notoriously pricey, and given Egypt’s severely limited education budget for 2016 (which Magid notes is a paltry 2% of that of 2014/15), many are concerned that the EKB will falter due to lack of funds like the many noble-minded open-access projects that lived and died before it. Makar, in her conversation with Magid, wonders:

How much does it cost to sustain access to these databases? Where did and where are they going to get the money to do this? How sustainable is it, especially given the fact that Egypt is facing an educational crisis? Are the databases available for one year? or the next hundred years?

“The question is whether we should have invested in something like this,” said Makar.

Over the course of its first day, the EKB received 1.8 million pageviews, reports Good e-Reader. Since then, over 8 million users have signed up for its services.




Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.