By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘A New Cultural Milestone’As observances were underway last spring for the opening of Sharjah’s year as the first Gulf venue to be made a UNESCO World Book Capital, the emirate’s ruler, the Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi unveiled a commemorative 79-ton sculpture, The Scroll, by the British artist Gerry Judah.
Its installation near Sharjah’s University City now is flanked by an ambitious project, the advanced construction of a 12,000-square-meter library and “social learning hub,” scheduled to open in April of this year as a lasting tribute to the emirate’s year as World Book Capital.
Called the House of Wisdom, the structure today (February 2) has been reported to be 60-percent complete and will house more than 105,000 books as well as digital resources, a “reimagining of libraries for the 21st century.
The project, like the Judah commission, is an initiative of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, called Shurooq. and is designed by Foster + Partners, a London-based architectural firm. Projects of the firm include Luxembourg City’s Galeries Lafayette; Philadelphia’s Comcast Technology Center; Apple Fifth Avenue; Washington DC’s Apple Carnegie Library; the Haramain High Speed Rail terminal in Riyadh; the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach; and Sydney’s DUO Central Park.
‘A Melting Pot of World Cultures’
In today’s announcement, Sharjah-based publisher Bodour Al Qasimi, who heads the emirate’s World Book Capital advisory committee and is vice-president of the International Publishers Association (IPA), pointed to the to the new facility’s alignment with her father’s vision for a knowledge-based culture.
At a ceremony introducing the project, Bodour said, “Sharjah was founded on pillars of literature, education and a strong passion for harnessing intellectual creativity–whether local, regional, or global.
“The House of Wisdom project is a new cultural milestone, and has strengthened Sharjah’s position as a melting pot of world cultures in the region. The ethos behind this library are the same ones that guide Sharjah’s development process, and proves once more, that the sustainability and growth of any nation can only be ensured by promoting continuous opportunities for learning and gaining knowledge.”
A key concept in the new center’s development is of cross-cultural interaction–as reported by Shurooq–”between individuals, families, [and] friends from diverse backgrounds, as they explore abundant knowledge sources, engage with others in a welcoming and social environment, and fuel their passion for reading, gaining a new life experience at this futuristic library.”
The executive chair of Shurooq, Marwan Al Sarkal, also spoke at the event today, stressed that the combination of digital and legacy library resources and the center’s social construct will enable new channels of learning for visitors.
“Built in keeping with the fast-changing world of technology,” Al Sarkal said, “the House of Wisdom is being designed to stimulate a new way of reading and knowledge exploration–with increased focus on collaborative learning spaces.”
The two-story structure, he said, will include discussion halls, reading lounges, exhibition spaces, a dedicated children’s educational area, suspended pod spaces above a central courtyard for quiet reading, a café and a restaurant, and landscaped gardens.
‘Sharjah’s Distinct Arab and Islamic Culture’
The House of Wisdom is a name used for the Grand Library of Baghdad. While the original nature of that site is a subject of scholarly debate, the House of Wisdom is understood to have been founded in the eighth century and destroyed in the 1258 Siege of Baghdad. One of the key activities of the original House of Wisdom was the translation of Greek texts into Arabic, and in its heyday the center seems to have been a great crossroads of scholarly cultures.
The setting for the new facility is logical. Sharjah University City is a district unto itself, encompassing the Qasimia University, the University of Sharjah, the American University of Sharjah, the Higher Colleges of Technology, the Sharjah Institute of Technology, Skyline University, the University Hospital of Sharjah, the University Dental Hospital of Sharjah, and several other educational institutions.
And in media messaging, the mission of the Shurooq program is described as being “to achieve social, cultural, environmental, and economic development on the basis of Sharjah’s distinct Arab and Islamic culture and to seamlessly add to the fabric of the emirate.
“It strives to develop the emirate and encourage investment by adopting the best international standards in providing high-end services that help draw local, regional and international investment.”
‘The Fabric of the Emirate’
Readers of Publishing Perspectives will recognize the Al Qasimi royal family’s longstanding interest in libraries as important centers of reading’s place in the ideal culture.
In December, Bodour announced that the World Book Capital program is backing the work of Kenya’s Book Bunk Trust, in its restoration of Nairobi’s McMillan Memorial Library and two outlying branch facilities.
And in the previous year, Sharjah’s gift to the city of Conakry, Guinea, the 2017 World Book Capital, was the rebuilding of the historic Tamsir Niane library, which had been badly damaged in a 2012 fire. In that case, funding for the project was led by Sheikh Sultan, an author and scholar in his own right.
The World Book Capital concept, of course, was introduced by the former IPA president Pere Vincent. In responding to the program in Conakry, then-president of the IPA, Michiel Kolman, said, “Not only is it excellent to see the rebuilding of such an iconic library, but it’s also a beautiful example of the current World Book Capital connecting with a future World Book Capital. ”
“These are the sorts of initiatives we hoped would bloom” when the IPA first outlined the approach.
And, as we’ve reported, Bodour led a delegation from Sharjah to Athens in 2018, as the Greek capital began its year as UNESCO’s designee.
Applications for the 2022 World Book Capital now are being accepted, by UNESCO in Paris, with a deadline for submission of June 25. More details about applying are here.