To TS Eliot, the very existence of libraries afforded “the best evidence” that there was yet hope for the future of humankind. The ethereal significance of libraries made it all the more sad when the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre announced earlier this month that it was closing its facilities because of a lack of a suitable venue. Ductac’s premises, in the Mall of the Emirates, contained living history in the form of the oldest continuously operating English language library in the UAE.
The Old Library opened its doors in 1969, two years before the UAE’s foundation, as the Dubai Lending Library, its shelves stocked with books gifted by a patroness in London. The library’s holdings continued to grow over the years as residents and businesses continued to donate books. Eventually, the library instituted a small borrowing fee and used the earnings to purchase more books. As the volumes in its possession grew in number, the library moved homes several times over the years. The community of local and expatriate readers that formed around it followed it faithfully wherever it went, its operations supported by an infantry of dedicated volunteers.
But the closure of Ductac, where it has been located since 2006, appeared to be the terminus of its storied history. Then, at the last minute, Emaar came forward with an offer to house the Old Library in its Gold and Diamond Park. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Library opens, it will grant readers access to one of the largest collections of printed and digital books in the world. But for the thousands of readers who have depended on the Old Library, this is a moment to rejoice.
An important piece of the UAE’s heritage has been rescued and will continue to support and foster the habits of reading in a country that has gradually grown into a major cultural destination. Its literary festivals attract the very best writers and keen readers from around the world. And the selection of Sharjah as the Guest of Honour at this year’s Sao Paolo International Book Fair, which will showcase a host of Emirati writers, will provide a rich glimpse of the UAE’s abiding reverence for books and love of literature.