One of the world’s most spectacular new libraries has opened in Dubai


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(CNN) – Dubai is known the world over as a glittering and glorious center of capitalist excess: its ever-growing array of wonders includes towering skyscrapers, luxury hotels and glittering shopping malls.

But one of its most exciting new attractions — the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, which opened in June — is a beautiful oasis of quiet contemplation, where visitors can curl up with a good book, plug in laptops for study or work, or wonder. rare manuscripts and first edition books on display in the seventh floor exhibition space. Entry is free for everyone, locals and tourists alike, and tickets must be booked in advance.

Joining the pantheon of world-class book repositories, along with the likes of London’s British Library and Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new library still carries a Dubai-sized price tag, reportedly costing one billion dirhams, about $272 million. It is named after Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who announced the construction of the new library in 2016. And with more than 1.1 million print and digital books stored in the 54,000-square-foot facility, it hopes to draw a crowd. favoring culture over consumption.

Located on Dubai Creek in Al Jaddaf, next to the shipyards where artisans have been handcrafting traditional wooden dhows for decades, the dramatic building resembles an open book, but is inspired by the rehl book rest used to hold the Holy Quran. . The facility has nine separate libraries, dedicated to media and arts, business titles, international magazines, maps and atlases, books for children and young adults, and a collection of precious archival treasures.

The collection of works is still under construction, but it already has impressive numbers. Along with multilingual print and digital books, visitors will have access to more than six million theses, 73,000 musical scores, 75,000 videos, 35,000 international print and digital journals, and more than 5,000 historical journals spanning 325 years.

And when you need a break from all that learning, there’s also a coffee shop.

Books, not bling

Avid readers can happily spend hours rummaging through shelves and flipping through magazines. But compared to the city’s list of superlative sights, can the rest of Dubai be convinced? Jamal Al Shehhi, an Emirati writer, publisher and board member of the new library, certainly thinks so.

“People like shopping malls a lot, but a lot of people also like books,” he says. “Dubai is known as a hub for business, commerce and tourism, but now this iconic building is sending the message that there is cultural heritage in Dubai, and what better way to deliver that message than books.”

On Thursday morning’s visit the library isn’t exactly full, but it’s not empty either. They are taking selfies in the light-filled lobby against the vast and very photogenic walls of books. People wander through the spaces, many to go to a specific section. Staff are planning an event later in the day, one of many open to the public to give non-natural library fans a reason to explore the facility. And not only is there room for lonely bookworms, there are also those who sit comfortably in large armchairs, deeply absorbed in the titles they have collected.

Robotic readers

There are iPads, but most kids seem more fascinated by physical books.

Mohammed bin Rashid Library

On the ground floor, the Children’s Library designed for 5 to 11 year olds is already a success. When I visit, a group of giggling boys sit in front of Pepper, a humanoid storytelling robot, who tells them, “We’re officially friends!” “How big is a coronavirus?” before you ask?

Pepper’s manga-like eyes and cheerful voice make the robot a captivating storyteller, and they’re just some of the many features here — along with a slide, climbing net and tent — determined to prove that reading to kids isn’t boring.

But it’s the physical books that other kids are addicted to. Today, around 17,000 titles fill the shelves of this library alone. From the little girl curled up in a circular reading nook enthralled by the book in her hands, to the boy sitting with his mother, using his finger to write words on real paper pages, it’s a joyous scene. And what’s more, when you notice that a paper book is too far away for everyone, the iPad shelf is completely untouched.

A roller coaster for books

The Mohammed Bin Rashid Library is also blending tradition and technology. In addition to the print book collection, each of the nine libraries houses a database of thousands of digital titles that can be downloaded from machines. There are braille books for visually impaired readers, and a quiet area with a reading area for visitors with special needs.

But the really exciting technology is in the Auto Book Store, an underground repository of 400,000 titles that don’t appear on library shelves.

Patrons can order a book through the library’s app (visitors can use the service at the information desk), which is then notified to the store, where a team of five speedy red box-like robots find, sort and deliver a box. to the human operator.

A light illuminates the requested title inside the box, which is then pulled out, scanned and sent in a rollercoaster fashion, on rails from the basement to the ground floor and into the waiting reader.

An eclectic collection of literary treasures

The library's jewelry collection is on display on the seventh floor.

The library’s jewelry collection is on display on the seventh floor.

Mohammed bin Rashid Library

The library’s book collection is eclectic, to say the least. If you want to learn about the architecture of the West Riding of Yorkshire, how to fold origami into the shape of Star Wars characters or “35 Glorious Years of Dubai Islamic Banking”. you are lucky And there is an entire library dedicated to the United Arab Emirates, with the first edition of the first novel by an Emirati writer, Rashid Al Naimi, as well as almost everything published and printed in the country.

But in the Treasures section of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, on the seventh floor, sit the curiosities. Al Shehhi describes it as “like Dubai” in the way it incorporates diverse cultures. More of a museum than a library, the collection includes rare manuscripts, calligraphic instruments and first editions of major literary works, some of which date back to the 13th century. In the cartography section, there is a 1662 map of the Arabian Peninsula by the Dutch cartographer John Blaeu, one of the first to show geographical features such as mountains, oases, trees and pearl shores.

Unexpected items also appear in the collection. The interesting details of Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s drawings of Egyptian antiquities are only surpassed by the intriguing details of his career, which took him from a member of a religious order to a circus strongman and then an archaeologist.

There is a first edition of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and a prototype of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”. But perhaps the most appropriate of all for our current times is Edward Jenner’s “An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae” (cowpox), a study of the work that pioneered the concept of vaccines, the title of the book. the term we use today.

As the library’s collection grows, there will be even more interesting books to explore, and with 200 events and performances organized each year, the center aims to be a community. Perhaps it will be enough to tempt visitors to Dubai to turn over a new leaf and leave the mall for an hour or two for a literary boost.