Volunteer Susan Fell attending to visitors at the Old Library at Ductac, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Image Credit: Atiq ur Rehman/XPRESS

Dubai: The Old Library, the UAE’s earliest and most popular library, may have changed many names and addresses since its inception in 1969. But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the last four decades, it is the institution’s seamless operations which members swear by even today.

What is striking is the fact that the library is a non-profit organisation, run purely by volunteers whose unswerving professionalism and selfless service have withstood the vagaries of time.

“We live in a transient place like Dubai where people come and go. But while our faces may keep changing, at no point of time has the library ever been threatened with closure due to lack of volunteers,” said a proud Jenny Colquhoun, the Irish PR and marketing coordinator on the seven-member committee running the library, now housed in DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates.

Colquhoun, who came on board in 2006, said the library has a band of 40-50 regular volunteers. “We are from different countries, cultures and age groups. All of us are women, though not by design. Most of us are homemakers and love to read. I became a volunteer when my two boys were grown up. I had time on my hands and wanted to do something to give back to the community.” 


Scottish resident Susan Fell, who has been volunteering for two years, echoes her words. “I love reading and this gives me something worthwhile to do.”

With over 22,000 books and 1,800 members, the role of the volunteers can be demanding. They have many tasks to cover from manning the front desk and scanning the library cards and making entries every time a book is borrowed or returned to sorting and arranging the books. Also, every book has to be catalogued and covered, with a data stamp sheet and a barcode put to it. There are teams that source and buy books. Volunteers also organise weekly toddler groups and other events.

Colquhoun said the library has distinct sections for adult and young adult fiction and non-fiction, besides a separate junior section. “Fiction books are sorted out alphabetically by the author’s name while non-fiction is categorised by the worldwide Dewey decimal system.”

But how do the volunteers divide the various tasks among themselves? “We abide by a roster. The library works in two shifts between 10am and 6pm, from Saturdays to Thursdays. Depending on the time each of us can spare, we commit to a particular day and shift. For instance, I come in on Wednesdays and work from 10am to 2pm.”

She said on any given day, a shift invariably has three volunteers and if one of them cannot make it, they inform the library well in advance so someone else can cover for them.

Curiously enough, the library has no set rules or regulations. “I guess we just have a sense of responsibility,” said Deepa Harish, an Indian volunteer who has been with the library for five months. A former teacher, she added that it’s the most satisfying “job” she has ever had.

Gunjan Pradhan, a fellow Indian who does the Monday morning shift with her and Fell, said she became a library member because of her children. “The volunteering came later and I love it. I work in a great set up with lovely people.” 

From the history pages

Over the years, the Library underwent a number of name changes, commencing life as the Dubai Lending Library, then operating as The Community Centre Lending Library for a number of years before reverting to its original name in 1983 and finally adopting The Old Library as its name in 2003. It was founded in June 1969 with a gift of books sent by Lady Verney of Eaton Square, London, to her grandson who was assigned to the British Army in Sharjah at the time. In April 1983, it was officially given permission to import books by the Director of Dubai Municipality.

Originally housed in the offices of the British Commercial Office in Deira, it moved to Satwa until it became too expensive. In 1980, it began to operate from a porta cabin in the Chaplaincy Compound in Sharjah. In 2006 the library moved to a permanent home in the Mall of the Emirates.