How the UAE’s oldest library is responding to the post-pandemic world of AI and fake news

Sharjah Public Library's aim is to offer a safe space during a storm of misinformation

Sharjah Public Library director, Eman Bushulaibi. Photo: Sharjah Public Libraries
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Over the course of its 98 years, Sharjah Public Library has remained an anchor of consistency in an ocean of change. As the country and world around it have altered, the institution has set out its stall as a safe harbour for those seeking new knowledge.

However, as the post-pandemic world increasingly grapples with the roles that digital and physical spaces will play in the institutions of the future, SPL director Eman Bushulaibi says it’s a delicate balancing act.

“Since the pandemic, people have shied away from our online programming a little, because they all really missed going to the library – but they do still ask about it,” she says.

“Even with the kinds of immersive experiences available today – now that we have augmented reality, and all the new AI applications emerging – there’s no substitute for the physical space. I think it’s both part of being human, and also a case of perception.”

As people deal with increasing volumes of online information at home, she says the library – which today operates six branches under the Sharjah Public Libraries umbrella – aims to create a safe space and equip learners with the tools and critical thinking to verify and assess that information.

“I believe that's not only our job as a public library, but even the community itself has a responsibility towards what they share. For example, when you use your social media or WhatsApp, or any kind of communication medium, you have to be very sure about what you're using.”

During the first lockdown in 2020, SPL opened up its online resources to the public – granting the entire world access to 21,000 scientific studies, 30,000 videos, 160,000 e-books and five million academic titles, alongside a collection of manuscripts, rare books and audiobooks, collectively available in 33 languages.

This digital transition led to a 70 per cent increase in the library’s registered membership, with users representing more than 50 nationalities.

The library counts among its online services access to the Arab research database Dar Almandumah, the educational portal Edu and Sharjah’s own Al Manhal search platform.

Aside from the British Library’s Arabic and Islamic resources, members can also access streaming services such as Kanopy. The library’s database includes a lengthy list of Arabic periodicals starting from 1924, as well as more than 1,000 African manuscripts dating back to 1834, and 1,238 documents relating to Middle East history.

Ms Bushulaibi says engagement has been boosted by a falling away of the historic reluctance to engage with online resources. “People have realised that online resources are just another tool – they’re not something that will remove from your experience, or reduce the benefit, so it has become more accepted.”

However, as society has opened up again, most visitors embraced the opportunity to visit libraries in person, she adds.

Although many people missed the “human connection” of the physical library, she says both spaces are working towards the same outcome. “Even people who rely on our digital resources come into the library, because that allows them to access all the people we have – our employees, the librarians and the IT teams – we really have a lot of resources.”

Examples of these are an adults hall, with a recording studio and 3D printing services, as well as a children’s section, equipped with VR technology, an immersive multimedia room and almost 75,000 educational resources in 14 languages. Meanwhile, the youth hall offers young adults photography lessons and the use of a professional recording studio.

Regardless of technological developments, the central role of the library in society remains very much the same: a “pillar of society and a beacon of progress”. Ms Bushulaibi explains: “The library as an institution of knowledge gaining and exchange will always remain relevant.

“These two elements of literacy and education have come together to support sustainable civilisational progress for hundreds of years.”

Ms Bushulaibi adds: “When we walk into a city for the first time, and pass by its library, we immediately know that its leadership and its people care about educating themselves and offering a communal space for learning, sharing ideas and hosting cultural exchange.”

This is certainly true of Sharjah, which was named Unesco World Book Capital 2019, and maintains a strong commitment to advancing literacy and the humanities – not just through events like the Sharjah Book Fair and Children's Reading Festival, but even by attending events such as the Seoul International Book Fair and supporting institutions abroad, such as the Gibran Museum in Lebanon.

Throughout its long history, SPL, which is the UAE’s oldest library, has served as an extension of the emirate’s deep-seated appreciation and support for literature. Although the library in its present form was inaugurated in 2011 by Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, its roots go back much farther.

Sharjah’s original library was founded as a private space in 1925 by Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi at Al Hisn – Sharjah Fort. Ms Bushulaibi says the move was visionary for a time when access to information and literature were very limited in the region. That vision is something, she adds, that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Originally named Al Qasimia Library, in 1956 Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al Qasimi moved it from Al Hisn to a new site on Al Hisn Square. It was later passed down to Sheikh Khalid bin Muhammad Al Qasimi and finally to Sheikh Dr Sultan himself, who in 1980 relocated it to the upper floor of Sharjah’s Africa Hall, under the name Sharjah Library.

From there, it travelled to the Cultural Centre and University City before being granted its current space in May 2011, with a new building on Cultural Square – now called Sharjah Public Library – with five more branches serving communities across the emirate.

While much has changed over the years, Ms Bushulaibi says “the community’s love for the institution has remained the same across generations”.

“The other thing that has remained unchanged is Sharjah’s passion for being a treasure house of knowledge and its innovative approach to learning and community building.”

Updated: September 09, 2023, 5:25 AM