Dubai - Arabstoday
Dusty and deserted school libraries are having a long overdue injection of fun. The "least-visited facilities" in Abu Dhabi's government schools are being converted into Learning Resource Centres, where children will go for classes, activities and research. Each centre will be stocked with more than 3,000 English and Arabic books, magazines and newspapers.
They will be made more spacious with comfortable furniture and will include a role-playing area, reading corners, multimedia access, TV and an online catalogue.
The makeover, to be complete in three years, is part of Abu Dhabi Education Council's solution to children's diminishing interest in reading.
"Children haven't had enough exposure to early reading or reading for enjoyment," said Badreya Al Rejaibi, senior specialist in the Library Management Section at the council.
"They have had insufficient guidance from educators and parents. And old libraries have been left in a poor state," Ms Al Rejaibi admitted. "The books were old and not age-appropriate. There were very few resources too."
Some libraries didn't even have proper furniture or computers for the pupils.
"There is also a particular lack of male librarians," said Ms Al Rejaibi. "We need to find bilingual specialists with a vast knowledge and computer skills."
Ms Al Rejaibi said they were also looking for books that were culturally diverse but religiously appropriate. "At the same time we want to promote local publishers and authors who help children to connect with their roots."
A study by the Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research found 70 per cent of Grade 12 pupils at government schools had rarely or never visited a library.
The Emirates Foundation-funded study, not yet released, surveyed about 350 Emirati boys in foundation classes at the Higher Colleges of Technology. About half of them had fewer than 50 books at home and only 39 per cent subscribed to a newspaper.
The study, called The 30 per cent: Who are the males in higher education in the UAE, was co-written by Natasha Ridge and Samar Farah. Ms Ridge said libraries were poorly equipped and librarians unqualified.
"The other problem is that teachers do not understand how visiting the library can be helpful for their lessons. Involving pupils in reading activities fosters investigation and inquiry."
Ms Ridge's research highlights the immediate consequence of boys' lack of interest in reading: they are unprepared for higher education.
"Because they are not familiar with libraries, they do not know how books and material are categorised or how research is conducted for writing papers, and they are ill-prepared for tertiary education."
Mohammed Balaib, a student at HCT who went to a state school in the capital, said he thought libraries were "old fashioned and boring".
"There was no range in the type of books, like sports or politics. And most of the students spent their free time on the phone," he said.
The Learning Resource Centres (LRC) project was first tested in 10 state schools five years ago. Ms Al Rejaibi said there was a marked difference in the way pupils viewed reading in the pilot schools.
"They take books home often and can even drop magazine names when asked.
"It increases opportunities for them to build skills, enabling effective evaluation and use of information. Their access to local and global resources helps develop global awareness and cultural relativism."
Activities conducted by LRC specialists also introduced pupils to non-assigned reading through competitions and storytelling sessions with authors.
"We shouldn't have to force them to read; they should be asking for books themselves," she said.
The council also hopes to open up their centres to the community to further promote a love for the written word.
"Areas such as Al Gharbia lack public libraries. We want our LRCs to be used by parents and children in the neighbourhood as well," said Ms Al Rejaibi.
Aysha Khalfan Abdullah Al Shamisi, an LRC specialist at Sheikha Bint Sorror School in Al Ain, said pupils were now enjoying their library visits.
"Many of the students were reluctant to go to the old library for reading because it was not very interesting - just books and reference books," she said.
"Now, the LRC is the school's beating heart. The LRC pumps science and knowledge to the school's community. It is the spirit of the school."
Ms Al Shamisi also started a book club for Grades 4 and 5 pupils in Al Ain to push them to read more and write stories. "It will take care of the young novelist and their hobby of writing and encourage them to write and explore their literary character."
Meanwhile, Ms Al Rejaibi said parents also needed to get involved in such literary efforts. "Exposing children to books and reading to them from infancy creates enthusiasm for the written word from an early age," she said.
"This includes parents and children reading books and other printed text, playing language games and singing songs together."