It is with a heavy heart that the University Libraries, the AUB community, and the local and regional library societies in general received the news of the passing away of Mrs. Helen Bikhazi, former AUB University Librarian and long-standing AUBite on Sunday, January 31, 2021.
Bikhazi held the position of University Librarian from 1987 to 2009, implementing various transformative projects and initiatives that changed the future of AUB libraries. She spearheaded the reconstruction of Jafet Library following the devastating College Hall explosion in 1991. She then led the University Libraries through the automation process between 1993 and 1997 and put the libraries at a state-of-the-art technological advantage. Her constant love for the libraries, and for the community in general, were behind her ability of attaining unprecedented financial support for the University Libraries.
Bikhazi graduated from AUB in 1966 with a BA in political science and public administration. Upon graduation, she immediately began her professional career at AUB, where she took on the role of assistant cataloger in Jafet Library. Later, she pursued her MLS degree from Aberystwyth University in Wales. Upon her return to AUB, she resumed her work at the library as an acquisitions librarian in 1970, a position she held for over 10 years. She then held the position of University Librarian until her retirement.
The staff at the University Libraries expressed great grief when they learned about her passing away, remembering her through numerous anecdotes and memories. Many of those who worked with her at Jafet recall how she loved her work, and her staff. They remember her for being dedicated, honest and bold. They remember her for the high achiever she was.
Dr. Lokman Meho, AUB University Librarian, describes the late Mrs. Bikhazi saying, “Always called or referred to as Mrs. Bikhazi, her over 22 years of service at the helm is a testament to her leadership skills, vision, and performance. She was the right person at the right time. She made AUB Libraries a model for others to follow both locally and regionally." Adding that, “When I succeeded Mrs. Bikhazi as University Librarian, I inherited from her an incredibly well-resourced library and an outstanding group of library staff members. She made my job very easy and I cannot thank her enough for that. Rest in Peace, Mrs. Bikhazi. You will always be within us."
Fatmeh Charafeddine, Associate University Librarian for Research and Academic Collaboration Services, remembers that when she joined the library in 1999, “Mrs. Bikhazi had started her plans to develop the library after the long civil war. I quickly recognized the great efforts she had made during the war. As the serials librarian then, I was very impressed that the journal subscriptions had continued and developed during the war with almost no gaps. A few years after that, under her leadership, the library was transformed to a high-caliber modern academic library, fully automated and offering hybrid collections, remote and in-person state-of-the-art services."
She adds that “In addition to her great achievements, the most prominent characteristic of Mrs. Bikhazi was her strong and bold personality. Working with her was not always easy, she was a visionary and a perfectionist. . . Today, I remember her not only as the University Librarian, but also as a strong, free spirited, and elegant lady from Ras Beirut, charming and always herself."
Basma Chebani, Associate University Librarian for Cataloging and Metadata Services at AUB Libraries describes Mrs. Bikhazi as a “frank lady," adding that “she liked socialization with staff during lunch time and dared to criticize them when needed, to keep good relationships based on transparency and sincerity. Professionally speaking, she always aspired to get the latest innovations in the library domain." She continues adding that “When she hired me in 2002, she believed in my capacity of change in all fields where the standards could be applied. She availed me of full support to transform the library bibliographic records to standardized bibliographic records to be compatible with a new library system that can be a part of the World Catalog."
Chebani witnessed how hard Bikhazi worked for the automation of the AUB libraries. In the absence of open source library systems, compatible with library standards at that time, she fought to convince the administration, ensuring required budgets to purchase a top library system, compatible with the latest innovations in functionalities and modules and compatible with Arabic language requirements, to serve most the university community .
Chebani notes that Bikhazi “used to give opportunities for everyone to prove their capacity of innovation and change." Adding that after her retirement, she became “a friend rather than a former boss."
In addition to her role at AUB, Bikhazi was an active member of the Lebanese Library Association and had an impact on the local library community. The LLA wrote a very heartwarming obituary about her. You can read it here.
Former Library staff members also showed their grief, remembering Mrs. Bikhazi throughout their career.
Katia Medawar, who knew Bikhazi for 10 years during the time she stayed at the AUB Libraries, recalls how she supported her in every personal and professional decision. She writes, “You were such a challenging person to me, and it took me time to overcome this challenge and get to know you more not only on the professional level, but the personal one. Behind your strong personality, big voice, laid hidden your soft heart and human touch. For years we had our lunch at the main staff lounge, and I cherished those moments where we used to discuss life and open all sorts of subjects. Those lunch times meant a lot me and played a major role in knowing you more and appreciating you more. Your office was open to all of us, and you worked hard to support our needs, and you were never vocal about how hard you worked. I would always remember your elegance, seeing you passing the corridor leading to your office. You were strict, strong, THINK TANK and objectives had to be achieved no matter. You had no room for compromise, and this taught me a lot. I will always remember you when you laugh, smile, and even when you shout. Rest in Peace Helen."
Rudaynah Shoujaa, a UL staff member who retired recently in 2019 and who worked with Bikhazi for more than 30 years, also shared her personal encounters saying, “Many will write about her efficiency as a University Librarian and leader, but for me, I will share personal incidents to show her good heart. During 2001, my dear Mom was in the Intensive Care Unit, in her last days. I explained to Mrs. Bikhazi the situation, as I was unable to attend to the office, and I did not have any vacation days. She was very supportive and assured me she will back me up, saying 'now go back to your mother and everything will be settled later.' A similar incident I experienced was when my sister was diagnosed with a metastatic cancer. I was in an extremely miserable situation until she had the operation and it turned out to be a localized tumor that was removed. Mrs. Bikhazi visited my sister at the hospital, accompanied by her daughter Hala. Helen was crying, and Hala asked her why are you crying if the patient is well? She said 'I cannot forget how Rudaynah looked for the last few weeks and I was worried about her.'"
Another similar incident took place when I had to undergo several lab tests and X-rays for a major health problem. I cannot forget the day when Mrs. Bikhazi came to my office to check on my results. Her worry was obvious, not as a head, but as a friend who personally cared. . . I will always cherish her memory and miss her till we meet again. Rest in peace dear. You were a great example and role model to many."
Elie Semaan, former UL employee who worked under Bikhazi's leadership for many years said, “The least one can say about Helen Bikhazi is that she was an iron woman." Adding that she served the university for decades and during some of Lebanon's darkest days and despite that, she successfully led her team to achieve many accomplishments, including transitioning the library from a conventional paper-based to a digitally equipped library. “Helen gave a lot to the university and will always remain in our thoughts and prayers. May she Rest In Peace!"
Marie-Claude El Bacha Lteif, another former UL staff member wrote “Mrs. Bikhazi was a role model, a leader. A lady whom I will never forget. Always super elegant with lots of style, as we say in French 'Une femme distinguée' She wasn't very talkative. A simple look from her eyes was enough to tell if she's happy or not. She believed in me and gave me the opportunity to grow throughout my career at Jafet Library as assistant to the information services department from 2005 to 2008. Her memories will forever live in my heart."
Samira Meghdessian, who was hired mainly to launch the Information Services Department writes “The first impression of Helen is not an easy one. She strikes whoever meets her for the first time as a serious person, and that she certainly was. But the reason was that she was responsible for a big operation.
Personally, I had an excellent relationship with Helen. I admired her style as it resembled mine when I was Head Librarian at the LAU from 1968-1978. Strict and efficient. We hit it off right away!
Samira adds that “Helen's word was the law. She was very sure of her decisions and one had to trust in her judgement. She was honest in that her aim was always the best interest of the Libraries. Helen was also the consummate hostess; always generous. She had a superb sense of humor, and we had great laughs together, sometimes as accomplices. I also had the pleasure to get to know her two very capable daughters who were as professional as she was, if not more. They are a chip off the old block! I am devastated by her passing. Because of her I had the most wonderful seven years at AUB and the Libraries and made many lovely friends. I shall never forget her or those years."
The University Libraries have been receiving (and continue to receive) many condolence messages through emails and phone calls from AUB administration and community members, as well as from the local and regional library communities to express their sorrow and their grief for the loss of the dear late Mrs. Helen Bikhazi.
The community at AUB and beyond will always remember her for all that she has done for the University, and for local and regional Libraries in general. “Your legacy will last forever, Mrs. Bikhazi. You will be missed - Rest In Peace."