How the UAE is safeguarding its history in huge recording drive

UAE National Library and Archives urges people to help create 'memory of the nation'

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The UAE National Library and Archives Centre for Preservation and Restoration (CPR) is ensuring the country's past is preserved for the future.

Located in Abu Dhabi's Mafraq neighbourhood, the centre is responsible for the restoration and preservation of the country’s records.

Newspapers, journals, rolls of film, maps, photographs, books and much more are being carefully restored, digitised and preserved for future generations.

"Those records will be part of the memory of the nation,” Hamad Al Mutairi, director of the archives department at the UAE National Library and Archives, told The National. “We are creating a national memory.”

The archive centre was established in 1968 in Abu Dhabi, before the UAE was even formed. After unification in 1971, its name was changed to the Centre for Documentation and Research, and it was then responsible for the Abu Dhabi emirate for many years.

Today, the UAE National Library and Archives is responsible for the entire country, working with other emirates, government entities and organisations to preserve the past.

Your place in history

The archive holds 6.7 million individual photographs and documents, with more being added all the time. What's more, the archives are calling for companies, entities and anyone with a record to consider donating.

“Your name will be preserved as well with the collection,” Mr Al Mutairi said.

"We will take care of it and we will treat it in the right way, according to the international standards.”

Mr Al Mutairi pointed to the Alan Horan collection as an example of a success story. The collection of about 200 photographs taken by Mr Horan when he was here several decades ago working in the oil industry was donated to the archive recently. The images shed light on places with limited photographs, such as the Maqta causeway.

At the CPR centre when The National visited, one expert was restoring an antique book. It is studied carefully to decide on a treatment. Pages are cleaned individually, and delicate Japanese paper is deployed to mend the tears.

Another was archiving books with a special machine that scans and digitises them automatically, while at another desk an expert examined photo negatives that have been donated in a cardboard box.

At a separate office, the hum of old 16mm and 35mm film reels can be heard, as one archivist scans the video for damage. There is a physical record kept using a system called Piql, which stores digital on physical film strips, which means valuable records are not lost due to technology upgrades or other calamities.

Unlocking the past

Each record has its own importance, with Mr Al Mutairi recalling how one photo of an old car brand proved crucial for business research.

“Through this single image, you can think about the economy and trade. The archives can intersect with all disciplines,” he said.

The potential for further additions is effectively limitless. There are entities, companies, hotels, restaurants and countless former residents scattered around the world that have records of their time in the UAE.

Social media groups dedicated to life in the old days are also hugely popular, with members regularly posting archive photos and documents detailing their time here.

“We are really motivating people to engage with the National Archives and Library,” Mr Al Mutairi said. “The person might not think this is very important but it will be important for us. I believe we have the right equipment and the right method of preserving the records.”

If someone does decide to donate a collection, they also retain ownership, receiving detailed copies and don’t need to travel as everything can be done online. Online exhibitions for the collection can also be created.

Mr Al Mutairi said it is often the case that the archives also include details or photos about the donating family, so it is possible to piece together a “puzzle”.

“We give them copies and they also give us copies,” he said. “We are completing the missing parts of that history or that story or that memory.”

The National Archives and Library has run awareness campaigns to showcase its work, encouraging people to visit the library, which is open to the public and is planning to have an event during the International Week of Archives in June.

It has also teamed up with the UK’s National Archives to establish the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive, an online archive accessible to all to showcase the rich, intriguing and complex history of the region.

Later this year, the archives is planning to launch a campaign to again focus on those with private collections to explore how they can help preserve them for future generations.

“We are not just a storage facility,” said Mr Al Mutairi. “Those records will be part of the memory of the nation.”

Updated: April 30, 2024, 6:41 AM