The Future of Libraries is Happening Now

Ten years ago, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was faced with the challenge of reviving a public library system struggling with obsolescence. A library usage study at the time showed that less than 50% of residents and only a third of students regularly visited libraries. Previously, libraries played a much stronger role in the UAE as community centers that brought people together to learn, socialize, explore their heritage, and educate their children. However, due to its rapidly developing digital economy and early, widespread adoption of ed-tech, the UAE’s library system has struggled to adapt to evolving community needs.

Alarmed by declining public library system usage, I started working with the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) in 2015 to understand why. Though the UAE’s public library system is modest compared to other countries, it is a microcosm of the challenges other library systems face. Globally, libraries are being challenged to remain relevant by transitioning from lending books to becoming economic incubators, cultural hubs, and experiential learning centers.

The traditional concept of the library as a restricted, quiet space has become outdated. There is a growing expectation that libraries should enrich communities by providing knowledge, entertainment, and lifelong learning. Transforming libraries from analog to digital, expanding offerings, and digitizing library services has also become critical to their emerging role as gateways to knowledge, culture, and learning.

The Pandemic Accelerated Library Transformation and Catalyzed Critical Conversations

Prior to the global pandemic, libraries were facing significant pressure to redefine themselves, and the global pandemic has accelerated this need. As President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), I had the opportunity to lead a series of primary research studies into how the global pandemic is shaping the publishing ecosystem. These studies provided an interesting glimpse into how libraries adapted on the ground.

Because the publishing ecosystem largely didn’t receive any pandemic government support, it had to come together to accelerate recovery. Though library interest groups have occasionally taken positions which are somewhat at odds with publishers, the pandemic pushed the publishing ecosystem closer together and is catalyzing critical conversations to redefine ecosystem relationships. For example, there is a lot of uncertainty about how public library digital lending might affect book sales and how digital transformation could impact reader preferences for digital formats.

Rather than letting uncertainties and historical differences divide us, I think it is time for libraries and publishers to start talking about coexisting in the future and how digital acceleration might change the game for the entire publishing ecosystem. I don’t believe this is a zero-sum game, and Sharjah’s showcase library the House of Wisdom — which is a reference to an Islamic Golden Age institution where scholars gathered in modern day Baghdad to translate the scientific knowledge of the era — is an example of what can be achieved through deeper publishing ecosystem collaboration.

Sharjah’s House of Wisdom: Being the Change You Want to See

My work with EPA to transform the library system to meet emerging community needs led to a national roadmap to modernize the UAE’s library system. Getting to this common vision for change involved a multi-stakeholder approach to systematically identifying the challenges our library system faced in adapting to the future, piloting possible solutions, and scaling successful interventions.

The EPA began by conducting a national library facility needs and use assessment. Because librarians are so critical to library system success, we then identified librarian skills gaps and put in place a librarian up-skilling program in partnership with the American Library Association. These efforts were followed by the EPA supporting the development of a national bibliography and helping to integrate community awareness of library facilities and services into the UAE’s national reading promotion campaign.

We have had a few wins with very innovative libraries in parks, on beaches, and in malls, but it has been difficult to have systemic impact due to the number of stakeholders involved. So, in 2019, when Sharjah was selected as the World Book Capital, the Sharjah World Book Capital Advisory Committee, in consultation with EPA, devised a strategy to develop the UAE’s most forward-looking library. These discussions crystalized the decision to move forward on Sharjah’s signature library the House of Wisdom which opened in December 2020

The House of Wisdom was conceived as a showcase library that other UAE and global libraries could look to for inspiration. Sharjah wanted to build something that showed what the library of the future could look like now. The House of Wisdom has more than 300,000 digital books, 11,000 books in different languages, and a dedicated children’s library to meet the needs of Sharjah’s youthful, diverse, tech-savvy population. The facility is contributing to Sharjah’s emerging entrepreneurship ecosystem by providing a maker space with 3D printers and encouraging publishing tech innovation with print on demand facilities. It also offers flexible collaboration spaces for cultural and edutainment events.

We must be doing something right since the House of Wisdom was shortlisted for the London Book Fair’s Library of the Year award this year. At the federal level, EPA’s early work on libraries and Sharjah’s pioneering work on the House of Wisdom played a small role in the UAE’s recent announcement to build a new national library.

What’s Next?

Libraries are being challenged to transform from providing transactional services to building relational connections with the communities they serve. This will require an increase in experiential offerings and programs at the nexus of education, entertainment, culture, and the future of work that will have significant impacts on library layout and design.

At the same time, the pre-pandemic focus on bringing people back into physical spaces is no longer enough. Libraries must now think about providing digital offerings which expand their community reach and leverage community building to engage users. Though the House of Wisdom is still early in its goal to spark library innovation in the UAE and globally, its journey already underscores that the library of the future will have significant implications for library design, services, digital experiences, and the skills required by library staff.

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Bodour Al Qasimi

President of International Publishers Association; Founder and CEO of Kalimat Group, Kalimat Foundation and PublisHer network to empower women in publishing.