If you need a quiet place to study, catch up on your reading or finish that report on deadline, the public library on Al Mankhool Road is just the spot.
The library is nestled between an EPPCO petrol station and a popular café in this bustling district in Bur Dubai, and every evening the reading room is full of studious people cramming up for their exams.
Not many people know about the Dubai Public Libraries where you can walk in, pick up your favourite magazine or newspaper and browse through for free.
As we parked in front of the library, a man came out with a plastic shopping bag full of books. According to a brochure at the front desk, the membership fee is a nominal Dh50 and one can borrow 15 books in a month.
Members also get free Wi-Fi in the library, but one does not see people peering into their smartphones or flicking pages on their iPads.
Librarian Salha Ghuloom says there are eight public libraries dotted around Dubai’s various districts. She says that when she earlier worked at the library at Al Rashidiya, the four reading rooms would be fully booked every day.
Al Mankhool Library also has a separate section for children and its bookshelves are packed with books written in Arabic as well as English. “Every day we keep getting books,” says Ghuloom when asked about the number of books available at the library.
Browse through the library’s brochure and you come across this sentence: “Children’s libraries are important as they impact a child’s personality and abilities.”
The adult section of the library has more than 50,000 books, both in Arabic and English. It also stocks up video cassettes and CDs that members can borrow. They have to pay Dh150 as deposit which is refunded after a year of membership.
Dubai’s plush public libraries started small back in 1963, with a reading hall built overlooking the Creek. Today, the libraries have a total of half-million books lining their shelves.
Talking about her love for books, Ghuloom says when she starts reading a book she reads all through the day because she cannot wait to know how the story ends. She says that once her brother wagered that she would not complete a book in a day. “I started at 9 in the morning and had finished it by 10 in the night,” Ghuloom recalls.
Eighteen-year-old Kinza Usman says she and friends love reading. “I prefer reading a paperback or a hardcover.”.
Usman has a poetry blog and says technology has made books more accessible to people. She loves to read fantasy novels and sci-fi and reads 15 to 20 books a year. “When you read something you really like, it opens the door to a bunch of others,” she says.
Usman has heard of Dubai’s public libraries but says has not visited one yet.
Unfortunately, not many expatriates know about Dubai’s treasure trove of books near where they live.
On one online expat forum, a resident asks if there are any libraries in Dubai where one can sit and read, free from distraction. Another expat responded that he should try his own living room. However, the man replied that his TV and his electronic gadgets distract him.
Not many people also know that one can book a “classroom” or a hall at the public libraries. The classrooms that can accommodate four people provide a private place to students and researchers for study and discussions and the halls, where around 100 people can be seated, are used to hold workshops, poetry readings and events.
Ambuj Tripathi, a chartered account, said he found Al Mankhool Library on the internet. He feels that reading electronic books is unhealthy. Tripathi was looking for books on history and geography.
Salman Ashraf, who just finished his graduation, was also in the library cramming for his CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exams. He says he reaches the library early in the morning, soon after brushing his teeth. Asked whether he reads any books for pleasure, he says no because he has no leisure time right now.
Dubai also has private libraries that are managed by long-time expatriate residents.
Mike McGinley, an American expatriate, has been running House of Prose, a second-hand bookshop in Dubai for the past 21 years. He has closed the Ibn Batuta Mall branch and has moved to the Garden Centre on Shaikh Zayed Road. McGinley does not believe that reading is dying as a hobby in this age of internet and social media.
One can buy a book from McGinley’s shop, read it and return it and get half the money back. “I am not rich, but I am paying the bills,” he says about his bookshop.
“There is hope. Children are still reading books, rather than e-books on Kindle.”.
The bookseller quotes an international survey that shows that 95 per cent of the people who read e-books also read a physical paper and ink book. “There is room for both,” says McGinley. “If you love one, does not mean you do not love the other.”
However, McGinley does agree that Kindle is very handy. If you are going on a trip, you can download 1000 books on this one little device, he says.
But he does not believe the written word will soon become outdated. “Publishers know more than I do,” he says. “The day when John Grisham says his next book is not coming out in paperback, that is the time to get worried.”
Isobel Abulhoul, who launched Magrudy’s, one of Dubai’s biggest bookstore chain, after her stint as a primary school teacher, believes that books will not die out.
“Books in the physical form will always be around. There is still a huge advantage in a cheap affordable paperback that can be stuffed in a backpack, never runs out of batteries, and can live on your bookshelf, full of memories of your adventures,” she says.
Some of her bookstores, unfortunately, had to close its doors in 2011; the last one to down shutters was in Ibn Batuta Mall. Earlier in February of that year, the shops in Deira City Centre and Dubai Mall shut down, to the dismay of many book lovers.
Borders, one of the largest international book chain that has a presence in Dubai, filed for bankruptcy in the United States and that also had a knock-on effect on its outlets here in the UAE.
Asked how digital media has affected bookstores such as Magrudy’s, Abulhoul says it has constantly evolved by listening to customers and by providing a customer ordering service for any books that are in print.
Abulhoul was instrumental in bringing the hugely popular Emirates Airline International Literature Festival to Dubai. “It was a natural progression from a bookshop”, she says.
“I had witnessed the inspirational power of writers, and the way that audiences loved being able to meet their literary heroes.”
Abulhoul says that a key vision of the festival has been “to bring joy and celebration to reading through the medium of writers. The festival celebrates the written and spoken word in all its forms.”
However, Bisham Sainani, a book lover who “lives and dreams books”, has another story to tell. He and his wife Leena opened the first private lending library in Dubai 13 years ago, “There were about seven to eight libraries [in Dubai]; Majlis, Baba Library, Dunes, 5-Star. All have shut down,” he says.
Though he blames people’s bad reading habits for the closure of the libraries, he is optimistic that people will return to reading books. “Some people like to eat apples and bananas and not live on vitamins. Books are like real food, [unlike e-books],” he says.
Sainani believes that like walking and cycling, which have become popular again, people will return to books once the excitement over the “new inventions” is over. “A customer said that he was reading on Kindle and now he has to start wearing glasses,” he says about the effect electronic books and games have on the eyes.
Sainani says he invested in Archies Library, located in the Pyramid Building in Karama, when a woman who was running it could not break even and wanted to close shop.
He says the shop was in a bad state and he had to bring in new books. “I am selling her books in baskets outside (the shop) for Dh1.”
The Indian expatriate believes that people are still reading books but getting them to the readers is expensive. “I can’t increase the membership charges and meanwhile, [shop] rentals are going up,” he says.
Alexander McNabb, a Dubai-based author, who has self-published four books, believes that there will always be a market for a story. People are still reading books but they are consuming it on different devices, he says.
My generation was thought to have become zombified by TV, but that did not happen, he says. “iPad consumers are still reading old-fashioned books.” He gives an example of the long line of children every year at the Emirates Literature Festival, waiting for their favourite author to sign their personal copies.
As you stroll on Dubai’s beaches you can occasionally see a tourist spreading a towel on the beach and cracking open a paperback that she presumably had bought at the airport bookshop.
There are other quiet nooks in this bustling city for people to enjoy reading a book and the Dubai Public Libraries give you that personal space, away from the hustle-bustle of a coffee shop in a mall.
Here is a list of public libraries in Dubai:
Al Ras Public Library Baniyas Road; timing: 8am to 9pm (Sunday to Thursday); Hor Al Anz Public Library; Wuheida Road;
Rashidya Public Library; and Twar Public Library.
In Bur Dubai
Al Safa Public Library;
Umm Suqeim (E-Library); and
Al Mankhool Public Library
Hatta Public Library
Mahmood Saberi is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.