Founded in 1992, the Rare Books and Special Collections Library was created through the combination of other units at the American University in Cairo. Foremost among these predecessors was the library of the university’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 in the study of Islamic art and architecture. Creswell offered his library to AUC in the 1950s, a process accelerated by the 1956 Suez Crisis.
In the 1960s and 1970s the personal libraries of other prominent bibliophiles, intellectuals, and Egyptologists came to AUC. Some of these, along with assorted rare books, photographs, and maps were managed by the AUC Library’s Special Collections unit in the Main Library building on AUC’s Greek Campus, which also maintained the university’s archives.
These libraries were brought together as the Rare Books and Special Collections Library in 1992 in a restored 19th-century villa at AUC’s Tahrir Square campus. The three-story building, on the corner of Sheikh Rihan and Mansour Streets, had been built in 1900 by noted architect Ali Fahmy, who also designed Alexandria’s Princess Fatma Al-Zahraa villa (now housing the Royal Jewelry Museum) and the Aisha Fahmy palace (now an arts center) in Zamalek. Fahmy used the Sheikh Rihan Street villa as his own residence from 1900 until his death seven years later. The American University in Cairo acquired the villa in 1987 during the administration of President Richard F. Pederson, it underwent renovation starting in October 1990, by Dar Al-Handassah Consultants with furnishings by NADIM design firm. The library’s official opening took place in February 1992.
Primarily supporting the university’s programs in Islamic Art and Architecture and Egyptology in its early years, with AUC faculty and students aided by the contributions of specialists in those fields, the RBSCL gradually expanded its focus on special collections. As early as the 1970s and 1980s AUC library units had accepted document collections, but it was in the mid-1990s that the RBSCL began to build major collections of archives and personal papers, like those of Egypt’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. Starting in the late 1990s the library received a number of grants from funding agencies like the Getty Grant Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, and most recently New York University’s Arabic Collections Online project to support making archival and book collections available for research.
In 2010, the RBSCL moved to AUC’s New Cairo campus, occupying the third floor and parts of the first and second floor of the Main Library building. The RBSCL’s two main exhibition spaces are located near its main entrance, a dedicated exhibition room (the Abdallah S. Jum’ah Room) as well as the library’s entrance foyer. The Nadia Niazi Mostafa Room, a lecture room, is adjacent.
The third floor includes the Creswell Room, with the bulk of K.A.C. Creswell’s library (many volumes featuring finely-tooled leather bindings) housed in his custom-made glass front bookcases. This room serves as a rare materials reading room as does the nearby Rare Books Room, which contains the Debbane collection, the Description de L’Egypte and other rare books.
Also located here are the RBSCL Research Help Desk along with the John Gerhart Reading Room study carrels may be reserved by visiting scholars, faculty, and graduate students. Open bookstacks house books and journals on a variety of subjects but especially specialties like Egyptology and Islamic Art and Architecture. Staff offices including those of subject specialists are located on the third floor, and the Digitization Center has a facility to provide services to users on the third floor as well.
The third floor also houses the Archives, with researcher facilities, staff offices and workspaces, and an oral history recording room. There is also storage for archival and other special collections, photograph holdings, and materials forming the AUC University Archives.
The Regional Architecture Collection unit and holdings are found on the second floor of the library building, with a researcher service area, storage for collections, staff offices and workspaces. Closed compact shelving storage is also located nearby.
The RBSCL’s digital initiatives have a home on the second floor, with digitizing equipment and operations of the Digitization Center as well as digital projects offices and workrooms. Building on the operations of a photocopy and analog photography operation, the RBSCL added scanning equipment in the late 1990s, and eventually, a substantial program of digital projects emerged. The Digitization Center now maintains flatbed scanners, an oversized plan/map roll scanner, a book scanner, digital cameras withstand, and slide and negative and videocassette tape scanning equipment.
The Rare Books and Special Collections Library’s Conservation Laboratory is located on the first floor of the library building. Drawing on the expertise of expert international specialists, a conservation laboratory was developed to care for books and archival collections in the 1990s.