Hidden Gem: Far from the madding crowd

The Old LibraryImage Credit: Supplied

The Old Library, a non-profit lending library offering 22,000 English books to its members, is hidden away from the razzmatazz of designer outlets at Mall of the Emirates. It’s not easy to spot as there are no signs leading to it, but the library has a long history and is run entirely by volunteers.

According to Jenny Orford, Researcher for The Old Library, it started off as the Dubai Lending Library in June 1969. It consisted mostly of books that were sent to the region by a Lady Verney of Eaton Square, London, to her grandson, then attached to the British Army in Shar- jah. These books, and others donated or collected, formed the core of the first library, held together by a group of British female volunteers.

The library managed to withstand several near-closures, for as a non-profit organisation it depends on financial support from other groups and institutions. It had to relocate several times over the years — from Deira to Satwa, a Portakabin in The Chaplaincy of Dubai and Sharjah compound and Jumeirah and Umm Suqeim — until, in 2006, the library moved to its permanent home next to the Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre in the mall.

This centre is sponsored by various UAE organisations that contribute to the cost of the facilities and their upkeep. The library section was sponsored by Dubai Duty Free.

“Here, it has enjoyed a period of unprecedented expansion and entered the digital age through the computerization of its circulation system,” says Orford, adding that the volunteer librarian team now numbers more than 50 and includes people of various nationalities.

After a few changes, it took on the name of The Old Library in 2003. It is open to all Dubai residents on a membership basis, which currently stands at 1,800, according to Jennifer Colquhoun, Senior Librarian.

The library’s collection includes 12,369 adult fiction and non-fiction books of all genres including science fiction, fantasy, romance and books from the Middle East and North Africa. The children’s section has about 9,631 books including picture books for preschoolers and other books such as the Harry Potter series, as well as reference books. New books are regularly introduced in both sections. The library also accepts donations of second-hand books, which either supplement the current collection or are sold in the library to raise money for new books.

A members-only story-time session for preschool children is conducted every Sunday morning from 10.30-11.15am. Members need to pre-register as places are limited, and a parent must accompany the child for the duration of the session.

Occasional workshops are arranged as well, although the venue is not available for hire. Apart from not having the space, it is a non-profit organisation, says Colquhoun. “It would also mean closing the library [for a certain time], which we wouldn’t want to do.”

Last March, Massachusetts-born and now Dubai-based fiction writer Liz Fenwick visited The Old Library and spoke to its members in conjunction with the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The author discussed her debut novel The Cornish House and provided insights into the storyline as well as tips on how to publish books.

“They were a wonderful group of women with brilliant questions,” says Fenwick, who will join the 125 authors attending the next edition of the festival from March 3-7 at InterContinental Dubai Festival City. Says Colquhoun, “We hope to have a visiting author come to the library to talk about his or her books.”

As reading is still the best way to reduce stress levels, according to a report by Mindlab International at the University of Sussex in the UK, it could well be in your interest to get far from the madding crowd, join the community library and, with a good book in hand, ease into one of its comfy chairs and lose yourself in its unlimited pleasures.

Source: Cheryl Robertson, Features Writer, Property Weekly

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