Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Qasr Al Watan: Inside the Presidential Palace's magnificent library

A public library in Abu Dhabi's grandest building has been drawing great interest from visitors

Visitors have streamed through the hallowed doors of Qasr Al Watan since its highly-anticipated opening last week.

Tourists and residents alike have stood in awe of its meticulously sculptured gardens and its elaborate, Mughal-style architecture.

But one room in particular has piqued the curiosity of the thousands who have already been to view the striking interior of Abu Dhabi’s Presidential Palace.

The building’s now public library has proved a distinct hit - its rare books and journals set against the backdrop of a soaring atrium and intricate chandeliers.

Shaikha Al Mehairi, director of library management at the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), said the project had been a huge but exciting undertaking.

Libraries should serve everyone

Manager Shaikha Al Mehairi

“The question was posed: do you want it [the library] for the general public or to be specialised?,” she said.

“We had a big discussion. And the palace said in every meeting, this is for the general public.”

With its own separate entrance away from the main palace, the Qasr Al Watan library is free to visit and boasts around 40,000 titles.

Works include historical diaries, memoirs, modern fiction, newspapers and online databases.

About 80 per cent of the books are in Arabic but there are plans to increase the number of English titles.

Visitors can read journals, borrow books and consult on the premises some of the 1,000 rarer titles in the collection dating to the 17th Century.

The works include Narrative of a Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia by William Gifford Palgrave, a mid-19th Century travelogue about the region.

The new, now public collection is part of the wider Abu Dhabi library network, joining five other branches across the emirate.

Curators hope it will primarily become a consultation and study space, all contained within the serene environment of a vast, marbled palace.

Even the layout of the library complements the architecture. Bookshelves have been kept low to show off towering ceilings, while huge wooden doors guard the smaller rooms.

“People will have to come and decide for themselves,” said Ms Al Mehairi. “Other branches target certain audiences and this library will probably target adults so … we will have lots of researchers because the space is calm and quiet. They will come and camp the whole day.”

The opening of Qasr Al Watan library comes as the DCT makes a sustained push to attract more people into the emirate’s libraries.

Visitor numbers nearly tripled from 55,000 in 2017 to 142,000 in 2018, and more facilities - including a dedicated social media channel - are in the pipeline.

“We have made ourselves more visible in the past two years,” said Ms Al Mehairi.

A Dh400 refundable deposit is currently required to borrow the library’s books but this is something that is being “evaluated”.

Meanwhile, remote access to the network’s 16 million digital items is free once users register on its website.

These online resources across audio, text and video include “press reader”, a digital newsstand with thousands of the world’s newspapers, and “proquest eBook central”, a portal where you can read eBooks from the world’s top publishers.

“Audio is now the trend,” said Ms Al Mehairi,” who has been in the top job for more than a year.

“But for us it is not a battle between print and digital,” she said. “Libraries should serve everyone. We are not trying to tell people what to think.”

Ms Al Mehairi and her team are now focused on delivering an accessible library in such a rarefied setting.

“It is highly symbolic,” she said. “This library and others will get a lot of support and that’s good.”

A series of community initiatives including author events, book discussions and musical performances is also expected in the next few months.

“We hope the Qasr Al Watan library will get a lot of public attention,” she said. “But we are not in a hurry and are making the collection presentable. We are still organising.”

Qasr Al Watan's library is open from 10am to 8pm every day. For more information visit www.qasralwatan.ae

Updated: March 21, 2019 12:32 PM

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