Cultural leaders, authors and educators have hailed the opening of Sharjah's House of Wisdom as the next chapter in the UAE’s rich literary scene.
The glimmering structure, described as a "library of the future", opened to the public on Thursday, December 10, a day after its official inauguration by Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah.
At 10am, the multiple gates spread across the 12,000-square-metre site opened and one of the first families to venture inside was Ajman resident Sara Sofia and her two young sons.
Having more than 300,000 books available within a 20-minute drive of her home is a game-changer, she says.
"While this place is an amazing achievement for the UAE, I also need to stress how important it is for communities who live in the Northern Emirates," she tells The National.
“While there are libraries here, of course, to have a detailed and dedicated space like this for culture is really important.”
Sofia speaks both as a parent and educator.
A Mexican linguist and teacher who has called the UAE home for a decade, she approached the House of Wisdom with a keen eye.
In addition to the vibrant and multifaceted space, home to multiple pavilions, she immediately spotted the effectiveness of the minimalist design by renowned British architectural firm Foster + Partners.
“It’s a beautifully designed space that is conducive for learning,” she says. “The minimalism is important because it doesn’t bother the eye and instead relaxes the mind. This is especially important when you have young people here; it helps the concentration and imagination.”
More than a library
Such comments are music to the ears of Khawla Al Hashimi, director of projects at the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), which was behind the project.
The House of Wisdom, which was three years in the making, was never intended to be simply a library; rather, it was envisioned as a central hub for obtaining knowledge in various forms.
“While a major component of the House of Wisdom is celebrating books, when designing the project, we also looked at the concept of learning in all its methods,” Al Hashimi says.
“People not only learn from books but by interacting with people, attending a workshop or witnessing a theatre production. We wanted to tap into all the various forms within the building.”
That eclecticism is prevalent throughout the House of Wisdom, where rich culture and technology meet.
At its heart is The Monumental Library, which will store up to 305,000 books, two thirds of which are in digital form and 11,000 in various languages.
That futuristic touch is also found in Al Jazari Laboratory (known as the Fabrication Lab). Named after 12th-century Mesopotamian inventor Badi Al Zaman Al Jazari, the pavilion features cutting-edge 3D printers, lasers and vinyl-cutting machines.
The nearby Book Espresso Machine section, meanwhile, is a one-stop self-publishing hub, allowing authors and students to print and bind books or research papers on demand.
In addition to art spaces, currently home to two exhibitions by Iraqi-born New York artist Wafaa Bilal, there is a dedicated auditorium to hold cultural events.
Sharjah Book Authority chairman Ahmed Al Ameri, who attended the inauguration, relishes the venue’s prospects.
“We will definitely hold a number of events here throughout the calendar year,” he says.
“There is a lot of scope in what we can do with these amazing spaces. We can launch literary festivals and bring interesting guest speakers. We are already working on this so, really, watch this space.”
Part of a larger design
The arrival of the House of Wisdom has also been felt in neighbouring Dubai.
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature director Ahlam Bolooki predicts the venue will play an influential role in the ecosystem of the UAE cultural scene.
While the venue may be in a different emirate, she already sees how it complements the work of the festival.
“People could attend our festival, be inspired by an author or a subject, and then go to the House of Wisdom to really explore the associated books,” she says.
“Everything feeds into each other. All the joy is shared because what we are doing in this cultural space is important."
This is a message Sharjah author and nasheed singer Ahmed Al Bukhatir will pass on to his children when visiting the site over the weekend.
“I love how it’s not called a library and there is an emphasis on gaining wisdom,” he says.
“The message that I get out of it is that knowledge is not just about reading books alone, but in building your social skills and being challenged by interesting people and subjects.”
The power of imagination
And to do that, sometimes you have to let children roam free.
This was the favourite moment of Sofia’s first visit to the House of Wisdom.
When strolling through The Little Reader section, home to more than 5,000 titles for children and youths, she recalls how her children told her to hang back while they checked out the books alone.
“I just sat in the coffee shop watching them walk through the shelves and looking at all these books,” she says. “As an educator, that was a really powerful moment for me. This the kids saying, 'let me explore, let me just feel it and let me own it'.”
For more information, call the House of Wisdom on +971 6 594 0000