What’s the Buzz? – Egyptian Protests

8 Feb

If you don’t live under a rock, chances are you’re aware that Egypt is in the midst of protests.  Everyone has something to say, or something not to say about it and there aren’t any signs it will stop until there are concessions from both sides.  The protesters are demanding Mubarak out of office and true democracy in its place.  I’m not here to talk about the politics of it, or my opinion on it.  Rather, I want to talk about what this could mean for libraries and archives in Egypt.  After all, we’ve seen this before.

By “seen this before”, I mean that we as a profession, particularly the archival profession, have seen the impact of protests calling for government reform on libraries and archives.  If you didn’t read Judith Panitch’s excellent essay, “Some Archival Lessons from the Case of the French Revolution”, read it now.  I firmly believe it’s a must for anyone in this profession as it treats the origin of nationalized information repositories as we know them today.  You can find her essay in the book American archival studies: readings in theory and practice, edited by Randall Jimerson and published by the Society of American Archivists in 2000.

Quick summary of her essay: the French Revolution resulted in a few important things for our profession.  Those are the establishment of a national archives, the idea that the public should have access to government documents contained therein and that the “public” meant everyone in the country, and that government should be held accountable for their actions via the public’s access to their documents.  When people demand a new form of government, they often demand a check on the system.  One check is the ability of people to view documents pertaining to the running of the government, inasmuch as it is deemed non-threatening to national security.

There are clear parallels to Egypt.  They have great national museums and they do have national archives and libraries, but they tend to slant toward ancient history.  Partly this is because Egypt has a fabulous history that is so well-preserved and they’re proud of their civilization and its level of advancement millenia ago.  Partly, I suspect, it’s also due to the government not promoting the use of archives and libraries and not sending documents for open repository access.  There may be other mitigating factors such as low literacy or inaccessibility either because of poor transportation or poor location.

I predict that if the protesters succeed, they will demand more accountability for their government and that will include freedom to access the information produced by their government.  The shift in the government being accountable to the people will go a long way in establishing a lasting democracy and I believe it would be a small step the government could offer that would mean so much to the people of Egypt.

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