Last chapter for Abu Dhabi’s first library

When the Daly Library opened in 1978, Abu Dhabi lacked a single bookshop. But now in the age of Amazon and Kindle, few people borrow its books and the founder, Jocelyn Henderson, has decided it must close – but the books will go to Addis Ababa.

The founder of the Daly Library, Jocelyn Henderson, still lives in Abu Dhabi in a villa in the Royal Stables. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
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A chapter in the history of Abu Dhabi is about to end. In fact, make that several thousand chapters, with the news that probably the city’s oldest private library is shutting its doors. Since 1978, the Daly Library has provided education and entertainment for generations.

The decision to close it is a practical one. When the library opened, Abu Dhabi lacked even a single bookshop. In an age of Amazon and Kindles, few now borrow books, and with less than a handful of volunteers to keep the shelves stacked, it is time to close for the last time.

Even more remarkable is that the woman who started the library, 36 years ago, will oversee its final days.

Jocelyn Henderson, now 92, is the wife of Edward Henderson, a former British diplomat who remained in the city after the formation of the UAE in 1971, and went on to set up the National Centre for Documentation and Research at Qasr Al Hosn on the instructions of the founding President, Sheikh Zayed.

Mrs Henderson, who still lives in a villa in the Royal Stables, says: “I’m of the generation that actually read books. I always have two or three books on the go, even now.

“Edward and I assumed there were other people here who enjoyed reading too. There were no bookshops here in those days and although people could order books from the UK, the postage was too expensive.”

The decision to set up a library was made by Mrs Henderson, along with Hazel Roberts, the wife of the British ambassador.

It started with 500 books donated by the Ranfurly Library Service, an organisation created in 1954 by Lady Hermione Ranfurly, a British aristocrat, to send books to parts of the world with a shortage of English language reading material.

Mrs Henderson says: “Ranfurly Libraries sent some books out to the British consul in Dubai, and I heard about this and said I’d take them all. I still have the odd book in the library that says it was donated by them.”

She arranged for the library to share the compound of St Andrew’s Church, then located on what is now the Corniche. When the church moved its compound to near Mushrif Park, the library followed.

Another major contribution came from Michael Daly, an Irishman who had set up the plumbing company Bin Moosa & Daly in 1967. Daly offered shelves with lockable doors and to fix them to the walls. His wife Audrey, had only recently died at the age of 55 and the new library was named in her memory. Daly’s son, also called Michael, still lives in the city and runs the family business. Now 60, he says: “My mother was one of the first Europeans to arrive here and also one of the very first people in that community to die here, so her passing impacted on the community.”

He compares the library to the Club, set up in the early 60s as another centre of expatriate life. “These are institutions that mirror the modern history of Abu Dhabi. People like Jocelyn are the key expat figures in the modern history of Abu Dhabi.

“My father only died six years ago, and was here for 50 years. Edward was very highly respected by all the previous Rulers. It’s coming to the end of an era. When key figures pass on and retire, it’s difficult to find people to replace them.”

Today the library houses 7,000 books, including 2,000 non fiction works and 300 children’s stories. The books are vetted to avoid offending local sensitivities and despite its location, there are no works on Christianity to avoid accusations of proselytising.

One of the oldest books is a 1959 edition of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. It has been borrowed 30 times in the last 25 years, mostly around the festive season. Also on the shelves is Edward Henderson’s memoir This Strange and Eventful History has been borrowed 30 times over the same period.

Another book with a personal connection to the Hendersons is Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, with several copies available. Mrs Henderson remembers the explorer visiting her husband, who died in 1995.

But she never warmed to him. “Thesiger was arrogant! I didn’t like him much, he hated women. He was afraid of them. But he was very fond of his mother – he was a mother’s boy. Also an intelligent man,” she concedes.

Her connection with the city goes back to 1968, when she joined her husband with their daughter Lucy, then four, from London. Her current home was provided by Sheikh Zayed as somewhere quieter, with the President sometimes joining them for meals after visiting his Arabian horses at the stables.

After her husband’s death, she chose to stay in the bungalow. “When I’ve been in town and I come back here, my home feels like an oasis,” she says.

Despite being attached to the church, the library has never depended solely on members of the congregation. It is something Mrs Henderson is proud off, saying many different nationalities used the service, helping some to improve their English.

Less popular works were sold off at the annual church bazaar to make space for new stock, which arrived monthly. Special requests for certain books could also be made, although only if deemed suitable by Mrs Henderson.

Where once a team of volunteers worked to keep the library open, there are now just two, Sue Michelmore and Phillip Loath, who staff it just once a week, on Sunday evenings.

“It’s become very difficult, because volunteering has gone out of fashion,” Jocelyn says despondently. She is now too frail to visit the library.

Mr Loath says that: “ I think for Jocelyn, it’s a big wrench. She made up her mind to do it now, but it’s very sad really. There’s some good old books here, really. We’ve only been open once a week for the past six months or so. Jocelyn used to take a lot of the strain, when people weren’t able to come or had other commitments, she used to step in. But now of course, she’s unable to do that. And volunteers are becoming more and more difficult to find.”

Lucy Henderson calls the closing: “The passing of an era. We are in an electronic age where the need is just not there anymore. Expats used to only go back home once a year, and the library was ideal because it provided a link to Britain. But, it’s not required anymore.”

For the chaplain of St Andrew’s, the Rev Andrew Thompson, the Daly Library “was probably the main source of entertainment for the early expats. It met a critical need, at the time. In those days, there weren’t so many institutions, and reading was a major pastime.

“Today however, Abu Dhabi is an incredible centre of entertainment – a location for world class music acts, Ferrari world, Yas Waterworld, there are so many more things to do, and there are public libraries here now.“

Mr Thompson now hopes to use the space as a Christian resource centre for the wider Christian community “in tribute to its function”.

But if the library is closing down in Abu Dhabi, that is not quite the end of the story. This week came the news that the books have a new home in Addis Ababa, thanks to a connection Mrs Michelmore has in Ethiopia.

“We have enough money in our funds to send over the shelving and the library computer too, and I’m thrilled we can do that for them.,” says Mrs Michelmore. “We’re officially closing the library on March 31, so the library will be sent to Addis Ababa. We feel the need for books is greater there.”