ABU DHABI // To the outside world, familiar with the UAE for its modern skyscrapers and luxury hotels, rare colour snapshots of the capital taken almost 50 years ago provide a valuable insight into the country's past.
Until now those images, as well as hundreds of other historical documents, could be seen only in the archives of the National Library.
Now, thanks to an agreement between the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach) and the World Digital Library (WDL), more of this invaluable historical material will be available online.
The partnership was vital to ensuring the world could access accurate information about Emirati heritage, said Jumaa al Qubaisi, the deputy director general for National Library affairs and the director of the National Library at Adach.
"There is a gap in international knowledge about the history and culture of this region," he said. "Unfortunately the only information available online at the moment is very humble, leaving researchers and readers all over the world with a problem. This is an ongoing project that will hopefully close that gap."
The images, he said, would soon be available purely for viewing - not to be used in any outside projects - on any laptop, computer or smart phone.
The agreement between the two organisations was signed on February 10, with Adach agreeing to digitise selected Arabic and Islamic manuscripts onsite at the library and send them as electronic documents to be uploaded to the WDL.
The National Library has assigned a committee to select the most important documents to contribute to the international database, said David Hirsch, the libraries adviser.
As well as manuscripts they have chosen maps, photographs, books and videos made since the unification of the Emirates almost 40 years ago. The digitisation is done by high-quality scanners in the library.
"We are trying to make Arab and Emirati culture more available to the rest of the world," he said. "Some of the manuscripts go back to the 16th century and many of the Arabic books we have chosen are out of copy and published prior to 1928. Young people these days are very interested in finding things online and with this resource they can now do comprehensive research."
The WDL is an international project developed with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). It is an archive of historical and cultural documents from 119 institutions from 66 countries, managed by the US Library of Congress since 2009.
James H Billington, a librarian at the Library of Congress, said the facility welcomed the UAE national library as a WDL partner.
"We look forward to working with our colleagues from Abu Dhabi to expand and enrich the Arabic content on the WDL," he said.
Mr Hirsch, who was the librarian for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1989 until he came to Abu Dhabi in 2009, said the involvement with the WDL was part of a larger Gulf project to increase historical Arabic content on the web.
"We are also a member of the Arab Peninsula Regional Group of libraries, museums and archives which is based in Qatar. The idea is that we increase the volume of Arabic language content on the WDL and promote the use of the site in the Arabic speaking world."
The first meeting of the regional group was hosted by the Qatar Foundation in December last year. Representatives from facilities including Bibliothecha Alexandria from Egypt, the National Library of Sudan and the Seiyun Museum from Yemen attended to look at potential partnerships.
The regional group is exploring collaborating with other digitisation projects in the region, such as the Memory of the Arab World programme, which documents Arab heritage for online publication and had its first meeting in Sharjah in 2007.
"The work will never stop," said Mr Hirsch. "Libraries are living and growing organisms, whether we are receiving newly printed works or rare historical material through donation from private collections, we are always expanding our archives and knowledge.
Now every time we get access to new material, we can share them with the rest of the world."