The Future of (Arabic-focused) Libraries: What is the Public Sphere?

UCLA Middle East and South Asian studies librarian David Hirsch, school librarian Jane Hayes, Khalifa University library head Dorothy Fubes Byers, and librarian and educator Shaikha Al Muhairi talked about “The Future Library” on Tuesday at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair:

Photo by workshop participant Kate Kasimor.
Photo by workshop participant Kate Kasimor.

While it was an interesting glimpse at what was happening in the US, UK, and in international-library spheres in the UAE, the talk didn’t much touch on the region’s future libraries.

David Hirsch noted that, globally, thinking about libraries had circled back around to previous ways of seeing the institution. While many had expected that the future would bring about a “library without walls,” most librarians and library managers had now come back to “library as place.”

Also, while e-books and online information were important, Hirsch said, many of his students still preferred print when possible. And when dealing with material from the Middle East, “We’re still relying largely on print.”

Hirsch said he was “concentrating more on trying to collect rare and unique materials” and to make them available with proper metadata and proper digitization.

Fine, Muhairi said. But: “In schools and universities we basically have a captive audience. But what happens in public libraries? How can we make sure the public libraries are engaged [with the local communities]?”

Byers responded by pointing to a US public library project in Salt Lake City, where officials had spent years polling the community. In the end, the library had responded to a wide number of community needs. That contrasts sharply with recent library projects in Cairo, for instance, where a large, cold building was erected in the New Maadi neighborhood a little more than a decade ago without community consultation. The library does have some community functionality, but it is certainly not engaged with its surroundings, and children under six are not allowed.

The design of a future "megalibary" for Baghdad.
The design of a future “megalibary” for Baghdad.

The new library being built in Baghdad is, similarly, a megaproject.

The “library as place” role in Cairo has largely been taken over by the private sector, which for the most part means bookshops. These become a (sometimes wonderful) place to sit with books, have coffee, attend events, and build community. In the US, Hirsch noted, many independent bookshops are closing down, while in Cairo they are still in an upsurge.

However, most bookshops target only the relatively affluent.

There are a few projects targeting less affluent reading communities, but these are also privately run. In 2012, for instance, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) launched an initiative to establish five public libraries in under-served neighborhoods.

In Sana’a, Yemen, there have been movement into community-library space by the TedX group, and even in Lebanon, which has had relatively active public-library sphere, areas outside of Beirut have often relied on private and privately funded library projects. Libraries in Gaza were funded by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).

In the UAE, there has been funding for public library spaces. Some of these library projects, according to al-Muhairi, have been responsive to community needs. Yet al-Muhairi, who is a former librarian and current head of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority’s Cultural Resources Centre, said there were still issues of equity and accessibility. There are a number of areas outside the major cities that still lacked proper library resources.

The book fairs themselves also function as temporary public reading spaces, of a sort. Although books must obviously be purchased to be taken home, the book fairs are generally open to the public, or in Cairo to anyone who has 1LE for the ticket. Still, most of the convention-center-staged book fairs don’t have “public”-feeling spaces that are appropriate to reading. The lack of public spaces for the public is something reporter and critic Ursula Lindsey pointed out in her critique of Gulf culture development the “New Arab Capitals.”

Censorships and access to materials also complicate what is “public” about public and private library collections, although book fairs — in some cities — also enlarge what’s available, at least for seven to ten days.


  1. Reblogged this on bears goats and strawberries and commented:
    Story time while parents browse books, we added a coffee shop to ours, no longer “sushed” can chat around the magazines, make sure to have the teen reads British edition “Marie Claire” Turks set the standards for the Muslims. Turkey has banned the veil for a long time. Let’s not bring it back.

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