Giving a second life to unwanted books in the UAE

The Book Shelter, which has been encouraging people to donate books across the UAE for more than two years, is stepping up its work this month, writes Hareth Al Bustani.
Readers browse at a local book fair. The Book Shelter hopes to encourage more people to read. Pawan Singh / The National
Readers browse at a local book fair. The Book Shelter hopes to encourage more people to read. Pawan Singh / The National

Encouraging people to read more widely is the aim of a local initiative being launched this weekend. From this Thursday, readers and shoppers are invited to bring unwanted books to the newly opened Deerfields Townsquare mall, where they will find dropboxes for their book donations in the gardens. Participants are also invited to sit down with a coffee to read or take home books for free; there’s also a storytelling area for children.

The event is being organised by Deerfields Townsquare with the help of the Book Shelter. The Book Shelter was set up by two Emiratis in late 2011 to encourage more people to read by providing free access to books across the UAE. The campaign received hundreds of donations of books in its first few months and it has since received thousands of fiction and non-fiction titles in many languages, according to the Book Shelter’s co-founder Mariam Al Khayat.

“Now you can find ‘free libraries’ peppered in cafes all across the Emirates, which was only a dream back when we started,” she says. “We worked hard to make the concept of free books a reality and now we are seeing it adopted by many.

“People now know where to turn when they have unwanted books on their hands and we’re happy that, after two years of hard work, people turn to the Book Shelter to give a second life to their books.”

Al Khayat says that the Deerfields event is a major “milestone” for their cause. “This is one of the biggest events we have ever taken part in. It represents the core of our concept, as it will bring together the community to share and experience literature at no cost. It feels like we have come full circle; our first event was a small reading corner in an open-air event, with books that we had collected from our personal libraries at home.”

Although the Book Shelter distributes books at some cafes on an ongoing basis, such large-scale, dedicated events are rare. One of the initiative’s key aims has always been to establish permanent centres for book donation. Studies show that 50 per cent of Emiratis do not own more than 50 books, despite 90 per cent literacy rates for people over the age of 15. Al Khayat and her co-founder Shaikha Al Shamsi hope that their efforts will encourage UAE residents to read more books and further educate themselves.

Al Shamsi says: “Having a permanent space is the next step for us, but, as of now, people can find our free libraries in Circle Cafe in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Spill the Bean cafe in Jumeirah, Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah and more places coming soon.” The Maraya Art Centre lets visitors take home four books a month.

Al Shamsi initially hoped that the concept would grow organically and become self-sustainable. One positive indicator of progress, she says, is a rise in book donation at universities across the country – organised by the students themselves.

“Our role is to support them any way we can. Education is a basic human right and we’re trying to do our part in making this a reality, by providing the materials and the accessibility to free literature. We would love to expand on this and provide resources for schools, specifically in the Emirates, but internationally as well.”

The Book Initiative will run from this Thursday to Saturday, January 18 at Deerfields Townsquare in the mall’s garden area, next to the cafe Shakespeare & Co.

• For more information, visit the Book Shelter at www.twitter.com/thebookshelter

Hareth Al Bustani is a features writer at The National.

Published: January 9, 2014 04:00 AM

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