A University Treasure: Students Explore Design History Through AUC's Rare Books and Special Collections Library
A project created by AUC’s graphic design program and spearheaded this semester by Bahia Shehab (MA ’09), professor of practice and founder of the program, has taken students out of the classroom and into the treasure trove known as the Rare Books and Special Collections Library.
The project was assigned to students in Shehab’s History of Arab Graphic Design course, which has been around for a decade but recently underwent reshaping after the release of the award-winning book, A History of Arab Graphic Design (AUC Press, 2020) by Shehab and Haytham Nawar, associate professor and chair of the Department of Arts. Using physical and digital archives of current and former Egyptian magazines, each student examined the history of a particular publication by analyzing its evolving design.
Shehab did not orchestrate the project alone. Working alongside Eman Morgan, assistant director for special projects, electronic media and professional development at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, the two carefully crafted the objectives and schedule during Summer 2021.
At the library, Morgan guided students through the archives, showing them different designs, layouts and typography starting from the late nineteenth century until the present.
“The students developed their analytical skills to compare designs and fonts before and after the introduction of computers and advanced software,” Morgan explained.
“Through visual history, the students learned so much on many different levels and in different ways,” Shehab recalled. “It has been a very exciting exercise for me to witness how curious they become.”
Overall, the students seemed to enjoy working in the library too. Hussein Mostafa, a graphic design junior, was initially apprehensive when faced with a table in the library stacked with old books. But after adjusting, he reported enjoying the unique experience.
“It was nice. It felt as if I was researching back in the 1980s or 1990s,” said Mostafa. “We’re used to using Wikipedia or the AUC library online.”
For his project, Mostafa studied Bint al-Nil, or Daughter of the Nile, a journal that gave him a window into the mid-19th century Egyptian feminist community and the life of magazine founder Doria Shafik. “Something that inspired me was that when a lot of magazines stopped publishing when things got harsh because of war or a pandemic, Doria Shafik didn’t,” he said, describing her move as a major social political statement.
Rana El Shaer, a graphic design senior who went through the visual history of the magazine Kawakeb, admitted that she had never set foot in this part of the library during her years at AUC.
“I always saw the elevator that leads to the third floor and thought, ‘Ooh, interesting.’ I didn't realize there was this whole extra part in the library,” she said.
El Shaer said it felt good to contribute to an archive that will keep “growing and growing.” She noted her own surprise upon learning that Kawakeb published horoscope readings –– a concept she thought had only gained popularity in recent years.
Shehab was deeply impressed by the work of her students on the project –– so much so that she organized an event that took place on December 13 at AUC’s Tahrir Cultural Center, during which nine of her students presented their findings.
“We decided to invite the editors in chief and designers of these magazines and newspapers. Some are well-established, like Al-Ahram, which has been running for more than 120 years,” she added.
Nada ElKhadem tackled Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest and most widely circulated newspaper. While she did not physically go to the Rare Books and Special Collections Library to conduct her research, she used the library’s online archives to sift through thousands of editions. “I had to dig deep, so it was really nice to have every single edition provided for me online.”
What set this project apart from the others ElKhadem has done under her major was the sheer amount of learning involved, as opposed to creating.
“As you go through the project, you're learning about history and how Al-Ahram evolved as an important publication in the country,” she said. “Exploring the different mediums and the influence behind it all was life changing.”
Shehab and Morgan are optimistic that this project will inspire other students and faculty at AUC to make use of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library.
“The Rare Books and Special Collections Library holds rich and versatile collections — not only books, magazines, maps and photographs, but also artifacts and paintings from prominent artists and architects like Margo Veillon, Van Leo, Hassan Fathy and many others," Morgan said, indicating that the collections are capable of inspiring students from all disciplines.
She added that the library also conducts tours that are tailored to the special interests of a class and curates exhibitions to display its hidden treasures and the work of AUC students.
Morgan hopes that AUCians and researchers worldwide continue to make use of the Rare Books and Special Collections digital library, which is open to all.
Shehab shares this sentiment, describing the moment when the students first entered the archives, many for the first time, as special. “It's very cute how they start taking out their cameras right away,” she said. "They became excited about the archive, seeing what a treasure we have and starting to utilize it. To me, this is the most precious thing.”
Photos courtesy of Eman Morgan and Bahia Shehab