Libraries and the culture of learning for life

Despite the growing role of e-books, libraries will remain crucial to an inquisitive populace

Gaining a love for reading at a young age is the key to life-long learning. Fatima Al Marzooqi/ The National.
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The burgeoning number of libraries in the UAE – whether public facilities sited in the capital's beaches and parks, the 1.5 million books that will feature in the Mohammed bin Rashid Library when it opens next year or just in personal collections in ordinary homes – is definitely good news during the Year of Reading.

Despite the growing popularity of digital books, there remains a compelling case for a network of public libraries. As we have often argued on these pages before, they are necessary to foster a reading culture.

Research has shown that children will gain a fondness for reading if they grow up surrounded by books, both in public collections or on their parents' bookshelves. As Emad Abu Eid, head of Abu Dhabi Municipality's public libraries, told The National, parents have a responsibility to incorporate reading for pleasure in their children's daily schedules by acting as role models.

But the value of having libraries goes well beyond that. They also serve as a reminder that there will always be something else to learn, no matter how knowledgable and well-read we might already be. This idea was propounded by the Italian philosopher and writer Umberto Eco, who died late on Friday. His concept of the “anti-library” stressed the critical role that not-yet-read books play in our pursuit of knowledge. More than the collection of books we have already finished, it is the presence of unread books on our shelves that helps sheet home the message that there is far more still to learn, helping promote the importance of lifelong learning.

The idea that we should continue to explore new intellectual directions throughout our lives is a key point stressed by educational theorists such as John Dewey, who wrote in his book Experience and Education that “the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning”. This is not only important for children but for everyone, regardless of age.

The American philosopher Eric Hoffer put it nicely in his book Reflections on the Human Condition: “The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents and children are students together. In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” In a fast-changing world, the UAE will be well served by a well-read population.