Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Inside the little-known, ultra-cool library next to Dubai's Safa Park – in pictures

The recently revamped Al Safa Art & Design Library, which originally opened in 1989, completely obliterates any stuffy library stereotypes

In the age of digital, thoughts of bricks-and-mortar libraries could easily conjure up images of old-fashioned, cramped and musty-smelling spaces filled with towering shelves sagging under the weight of an eclectic selection of books, as stern librarians ask noisy patrons to be quiet.

But the recently revamped Al Safa Art & Design Library, which originally opened in 1989, completely obliterates any such stereotypes with its stylish architecture and inviting, wide-open layout that’s been designed to encourage visitors to sit, socialise and stay put.

When people come here they are always surprised by how different it looks to the other libraries. What they love are the open spaces and natural light that comes in

Khawla Rashid bin Fahd, Dubai Public Libraries

The reopening is part of an initiative launched in 2016 to refurbish the entire Dubai Public Library network, and the plan supports the UAE National Strategy for Reading. The Al Safa post is the pilot project, and now it serves as a benchmark for all public libraries in the emirate.

“This space is a test to see how the people will [respond], and if they will come and visit,” says Eiman Al Hammadi, a specialist in the Public Libraries Department for Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, as she takes The National on a tour. It has been well received since it opened to the public in March, she says.

Khawla Rashid bin Fahd, chief officer for Dubai Public Libraries, who also joins us on the tour, adds: “When people come here they are always surprised by how different it looks to the other libraries. What they love are the open spaces and natural light that comes in.”

It’s hard to miss the building as you drive along Al Wasl Road. It stands out as a stark grey beacon of modernity against an older, coral-coloured backdrop, with foliage and a flyover almost obscuring it from view. But its sharp, angular shape catches your eye, belying the tranquil haven of literature that lies within.

Beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, a soon-to-open cafe sits tucked away to the left. A vast expanse of low-lying shelves with a selection of books in Arabic and English is ahead. You can read these at the space, but, unlike traditional libraries, you cannot take them home.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 24 JULY 2019. Workspaces and reading areas at the recently opened Al Safa Art and Design Library offers over 4,000 titles, group workspaces, meeting areas, a cafe, an art gallery, a lounge area, and a children’s library. (PHOTO: REEM MOHAMMED / THE NATIONAL)
Workspaces and reading areas at the recently opened Al Safa Art and Design Library

We spot big tomes about people as varied as Linda McCartney and Charlie Chaplin. These sit next to rarer books, such as a grey hardback with “Syria in photos” scrawled in handwriting along the spine. Some home in on the UAE, including Memories of Satwa and The Best of Dubai Shop Names, while others focus further afield, from Rome’s art and architecture to the Ukrainian Academy of Art. There are titles focusing on fashion, opera and archaeology, as well as comics, coffee-table books and a narrative on Cubism.

Despite the focus on the arts, however, the team is also attempting to attract people from all walks of life and with all manner of interests. The back shelf has been reserved for a more generalist selection, including topics such as medicine and nature.

To the left of the books, an inviting reading area is set in an atrium-like space, with big windows and plenty of natural light flooding in. “Imagine what this will be like during the winter,” Al Hammadi says as we pass through. Cool, calm and incredibly peaceful, we offer.

From there, we walk through to a lovely courtyard, which, come the end of the year, will be used for various activities such as poetry recitals and movie nights, says Al Hammadi, who previously worked at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature as the competitions and Arabic education relationships manager.

Towards the back of the building, there is an area for creative folk to host their own workshops for a small fee, and this sits next to a gallery where artists are invited to hold exhibitions. Next to this, there is a set of new computers still in their plastic wrappers, sitting on top of a long, large desk – just waiting for library members to come and work there.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 24 JULY 2019. Artworks and sculptures inside the recently opened Al Safa Art and Design Library offers over 4,000 titles, group workspaces, meeting areas, a cafe, an art gallery, a lounge area, and a children’s library. (PHOTO: REEM MOHAMMED / THE NATIONAL)
Artworks and sculptures are dotted throughout

Then there’s the children’s area, with its own library, “media room” and a small cinema space. Hundreds of children’s book in Arabic, English and even Braille line the shelves.

All over, ornaments and pieces of art stand out, including a painting by famed Emirati artist Abdul Qader Al Rais, as well as an exhibition of stunning images from the Hamdan International Photography Award.

It really is a place where art, design and literature intersect.

This is merely the beginning, as the team continues to work on the refurbishment of Dubai’s eight other libraries. These – or at least some – will be finished in time for Expo 2020, we are told. The aim, after all, is for each of these branches to become a tourist destination in itself, Al Hammadi says. And while Al Safa’s might be focused on art and design, others will have a different remit. For example, Deira’s Al Ras Public Library, which originally opened in 1963 and is in a historical area, has many rare books as part of its collection and will be more of a museum library. Another branch at the Etihad Museum will focus on the history of the UAE.

Opportunities for the public to work with the team will be available soon, too. “We have a plan to open a new platform for volunteering,” Al Hammadi says. “There’s plenty you can do. You can look after books, look after the memberships. We have plenty of workshops and events – and we need manpower.” This, she says, is open to anyone and everyone.

“This is not just a place to come and read,” says Rashid bin Fahd. “It’s more of a hub, more of a community centre, where you can come and socialise with people like you and even make things.”

Most importantly, it’s about reconnecting with words and literature in an engaging and meaningful way. Any stuffy library stereotypes have been sufficiently shattered.

Library memberships cost Dh75 for children (one-off payment until the child turns 12), Dh220 for single adults (five years) and Dh270 for a family (five years). Visit dubaiculture.gov.ae

Updated: September 5, 2019 02:40 PM

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