WKND Special: Using books to cope during Covid
It is not a reach to suggest that libraries - and, most of all, librarians - have never had a bigger challenge
For people of my generation, libraries were magical places. Being let loose in a library with a library card was a special treat, and the obligation of returning the books before due date was treated as a serious lesson in responsibility.
But libraries are not simply sources of nostalgia, as quaint and antiquated as landlines and rotary dial telephones.
Since my youth, libraries around the world have expanded their reach. Many have reinvented themselves as community hubs for all and, more than ever, become a lifeline for people from all walks of life. From book clubs for the elderly, to story time for young children, or CV workshops for the unemployed, libraries have identified user groups who need them the most and set out to address those needs, whether loneliness, stimulation or simply a bit of respite from the daily grind.
It works because these activities are built on what is at the heart of a library: unlimited books and knowledgeable librarians. The benefits of reading are countless. Habitual readers are proven by numerous studies to be happier, healthier, and do better in life.
In the past year, we have seen the world change in ways we could never have imagined.
What happens to libraries in this time of social distancing, germaphobia, and limiting exposure to shared items and spaces? What function will they fill? It is not a reach to suggest libraries - and, most of all, librarians - have never had a bigger challenge.
As a parent of reading-reluctant young children, I have seen first-hand how a committed school librarian will use their seemingly limitless knowledge of books, their powers of deduction, and a big heap of intuition to ensure each child has the precise book in their hands that will speak to them. The book that will start their reading journey.
Sometimes, they might get it wrong, so they try again. And again. Because school librarians do not give up. Eventually, they put the right book in the right hands at the right time, and magic happens. And once a child has discovered the joy of reading, they will be better equipped to take in the less exciting textbooks. Each book is a stepping stone towards the next.
But books don't simply give us a command of facts and entertaining stories. Reading gives us an understanding not only of ourselves and others, but of our shared humanity. They allow us to see beyond ourselves and find stability in a volatile world.
The Emirates Literature Foundation and The Executive Council of Dubai launched the School Librarian of the Year Award five years ago to recognise the efforts of school librarians. The challenge this year will be how to overcome all the physical restrictions and keep children reading.
In this year of uncertainty, the most important advantage we can gain from reading is the emotional tools to cope. The language to talk about how we feel and the awareness that we are not alone. That fictional or not, people just like us have overcome fear and isolation. If you need any proof of that, just ask a librarian.
Andrea Gissdall, Head of Marketing and Communications, Emirates Literature Foundation