Back home

_ScannedMedia = Kodak VPS III 160_ImageColorType = ICTypeSceneAfter a long, 14-hour flight, I am back at home. On the left is the mysterious photo taken by Tamara W. Hill in Meknes that I look at every day as I leave the house. It appears to be two images superimposed on each other, which is why it looks so jarring–as though there is something a little bit off kilter. I don’t have any mementoes of this trip to Saudi Arabia, probably because I never really got enough of an understanding of Riyadh. I don’t take photos on my trips–except to post on Facebook as a modern version of postcards–and I rely on physical objects to jog my memory. I did, however, bring back Arabic clothing, colorfully patterned and loose, which I will wear. I also have an abaya, the long black coat that Arab women wear, which was made in Clifton, New Jersey, in a shop run by Palestinian women from Jordan. Something about the cut reminds me of the clothes worn by women here in the 1950s. I can see in my mind’s eye all sorts of uses for that coat, but I think it is best left, folded and put away in the closet. One of the wonderful things about taking a trip–any trip–is coming back and seeing ordinary things in  different way. I came back with a desire to think about technology and interconnectedness. About how communities can be formed through electronic media and mediation and how small opportunities and ideas can grow exponentially through crowd-sourcing. That’s all for now…..


Time spent at the library

On Wednesday, I was driven across campus to the new library to meet the departmental heads who had attended the seminar. This was first time of my not only meeting these women, but seeing them as well. I could only hear in the background female voices talking and working together while I was teaching. Once I got beyond that door I saw a magnificent towering atrium–six or seven stories high–made of glass, marble and steel. The images I posted last time give a sense of the architectural style and grandeur. This recently completed library had not yet been opened by the minister of education and everything was new and untouched.  The building was empty of students. Most striking was the fact that there were no books to be seen except for a shelf of inspirational works on women in the Islamic world, which could be checked out. The library’s collections are stored and are retrieved by a robotic delivery system, much like the one at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  Princess Nora’s library spaces are earmarked for future activities like graphic design, academic computing, medical models, and so forth.  I felt disoriented as I had in Las Vegas, though probably less so, since the UNLV was redesigning an existing space rather than creating a new one and you still felt the presence of print books like ghosts in the background.  Meeting my colleagues and talking to them as professionals in a space designed and demarcated as “female” was a surprise. The experience was positive, clannish, intimate…I am not really sure how to describe it.


Building design–Princess Nora University by Perkins+Will

See story at Architect Magazine

Project Description



The University

20150216_091448This is now my third day lecturing at Princess Nora University Libraries. The campus itself is massive. PNU is the largest women’s university in the world, with 40,000 students.  There is a monorail which transports the students from one end to the other. The building I am in is absolutely magnificent. Marble floors, high ceilings and what seems to be a sandstone exterior. Although I have been lecturing with a male Egyptian professor and translator I have not yet met the librarians. Because of the strict divisions between the sexes, we are in a another building across campus and leading this session via videoconferencing. So far, I have been unable to see the library administrators, although they can see us, and tomorrow I will go to the library myself for our first meeting. Riyadh itself is an enormous, far-flung city in a dry desert region of Saudi Arabia. The city is cosmopolitan, wealthy and multinational. People are drawn here from all corners of the Islamic world, Lebanon, Syria, the Sudan, Indonesia…In light of this being a “librarian’s” blog, as opposed to, say, a “traveler’s” blog, I will try to focus on observations that unite us as practitioners in two separate parts of the world. These sessions–four in all–consist of lectures, discussion, and group exercises on the topic of strategic planning. One of the inevitabilities of a discussion about strategic planning and libraries is that the various models used are based on business theory and stratagems, which both work and do not work for libraries. Academic libraries behave like non-profit institutions in their ethos and praxis–quite like their parent institution, the university. But they are run like small businesses. Many of the strategies involved in strategic planning do not quite “fit” libraries. In our discussions we tried to really understand some of the terminology, like SWOT analysis, conducting an environmental scans, KPIs and so forth and how they made sense for libraries. For me the most interesting discussion  involved leadership styles. We went through the categories included in the Hay McBer styles of management and discussed their validity as useful constructs for managing people. I was happy to see that these women gravitated towards a democratic, i.e., participatory style of management–like their women colleagues in the US. It has also been extremely valuable to do exercises targeted to the tasks they will be doing as part of implementing the new strategic plan.


Through the door

minaretOne of the most interesting things about being in Riyadh–and I felt this in Rabat as well– is going over to religious time. The muezzins call the faithful to prayer five times a day–their voices strong and musical and the response tempered and low-pitched. You can hear this call and response all over the city. Western time was created in the spark of industrial revolution and is punctuated by whistles and bells–this time is much older and has a very different rhythm.

I  am including here Matthew Arnold’s poem, which was a favorite of my parents, and which reflects on the beginning of the “scientific” age.


The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.



Setting out

I went looking for an image to illustrate this blog and found in the Library of Congress’s online image archives this beautiful digital reproduction of a photo of the Main Gate of the Holy Mosque in Medina with its beckoning open door. Doors signify a transition from one space to another. Hanging in our hallway is a photo framed and signed by Tamara W. Hill of a similar door in Meknes, Morocco. I look at that door every day and it reminds me of my trip to Rabat. It is impossible in both cases to tell exactly what lies beyond, which makes these images so hauntingly mysterious.

The photo of the Main Gate of the Holy Mosque in Medina in the Library of Congress Archives contains the following descriptive metadata:


  • Title: Medina : Haupttot (Bâb es salâm) der heiligen Moschee an der Südwestecke.
  • Title Translation: Medina : Main gate (Bāb al-salām) of the holy mosque at the southwest corner.
  • Creator(s): Moritz, B. (Bernhard), 1859-1939
  • Date Created/Published: Berlin : Dietrich Riemer, 1916.
  • Medium: 1 photograph ; photomechanical print.
  • Summary: Photograph shows the main gate (Bâb es salâm) of the Holy Mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
  • Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-pmsca-38160 (digital file from original item) LC-USZ62-87128 (b&w film copy neg.)
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication. No known restrictions on publication.
  • Call Number: LOT 3704, no. 69 [item] [P&P]
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 US


As the metadata tells us, the photograph  was taken by Bernhard Moritz and  published in Berlin in 1916. With this data, I was able to discover on Wikipedia that Moritz was a  well-known German orientalist and linguist. The entry notes, “From 1896 to 1911 Moritz headed he library of the Khedive in Cairo. From there he often undertook expeditions to the Sinai and in the Hijaz (Arabia). In 1911 he returned to Berlin, where he became head of the Library of the Department of Oriental Languages ​​and privy councilor. A few years later he was awarded the title of professor. In 1924 he retired.” The entry also contains Moritz’s normative data (Person) GND : 116,929,251  and Library of Congress number  LCCN : nr95008447   This is what linked data is all about. I now have three reference points: a LC authority name and number and the German National Library number, with which I can use to further find information on Moritz. The Wikipedia entry was translated from German by a volunteer contributor  (though I could have done it just as well with Google Translate). Since Moritz’s works are listed in the bibliography, I can now go to Amazon, Worldcat, or an out-of-print vendor to obtain his books. I have now benefited not only from linked data, but also from crowd-sourcing and a Google app–all in the space of under under three minutes and all done for free. This has to do with one aspect of information retrieval–the infrastructure that knits data together and there is a need for the library to participate in this process. Perhaps more important, however, is how adept a researcher needs to be to retrieve,  interpret and then reuse this data to create something meaningful, rather than simply derivative.  From everything that I’ve seen from working with students and from reading the library literature, this skill set takes a long time to master. It is not an easy cognitive process. Therefore, it is crucial for the university library to come up with a plan and policies as it transitions into both a technologically advanced repository and a teaching branch of the academy.  It also is a good question to consider as I begin my trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.