Learning hubs: public libraries

More than just a haven for bookworms, public libraries are cultural and educational centres playing a leading role in the development of urban communities across the world

‘Silence is Golden’ is the much vaunted mantra of the stern-browed librarian throughout the ages but in Dubai this summer, the library setting is centred on lively interaction. Dubai Public Library has unveiled its annual summer activities programme, ‘Our Summer is Arts & Culture.’

Children are the target for a varied programme incorporating arts and crafts, Islamic lessons, and personality and self-development. Abdulrahman Ibrahim, Head of the Dubai Public Library Department, Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, said: “In line with the UAE’s Vision to establish the country as a knowledge-based economy, the Dubai Public Library branches are committed to strengthening and nurturing the skills of our future leaders through an extensive array of theoretical and practical activities that will spark their interest and encourage them to engage in productive dialogue.”

This dynamic approach is echoed elsewhere. Fans of eighties film classic Ghostbusters will recognise the imposing Neo Classical façade and beaux-arts interiors of the New York Public Library. It was founded in the 1800s as a means to provide all members of the public with free access to information and education, supporting an informed, democratic citizenry. The library has over 50 million items in its collection and, like most libraries globally, is making room for new ways of thinking.

“Libraries still offer books, of course, as that is still a key service people do want, but they also provide English language classes, literacy classes, after-school tutoring and technology courses, such as Facebook for Seniors,” comments spokeswoman Angela Montefinise. “They are safe, community spaces for the public to come, learn and have fun and we have seen record attendance at our libraries in recent years.”

The tradition of libraries goes back thousands of years. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the library in Alexandria was the greatest in antiquity. In 2002 a modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built at a cost of US$220m to recapture the glorious reputation of its predecessor, destroyed 2000 years ago. As well as holding 500,000 books, the institution provides the city with a vibrant cultural hub including art galleries and a conference centre.

The institution is on a self-proclaimed mission to be a “Window on the World”. Last month it received the prestigious Calouste Gulbenkian International Prize. In the words of the jury, “the Library of Alexandria is unique in the sense that it represents a large Egyptian library, international in scope, endowed with the mission of serving as a centre of learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding between cultures and peoples as well as a leading institution in the digital era.”

Libraries across the world are turning over a new leaf. The Pierresvives in Montpellier, France, has Xboxes and big screens to attract the young and the new City Library in Seinäjoki, Finland has swathes of funky furniture to encourage a convivial atmosphere. Not only are libraries essential tools for academic learning but cultural interaction and civic engagement.