The Dubai Digital Library aims to preserve national heritage, culture and identity – here's how

With the Year of Reading already underway, Dubai has announced a plethora of plans designed to get people more interested in ­Arabic books and literature. A new Dh1 billion library is set to open in Jaddaf next year, but in the meantime, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation has already launched the first phase […]

With the Year of Reading already underway, Dubai has announced a plethora of plans designed to get people more interested in ­Arabic books and literature.

A new Dh1 billion library is set to open in Jaddaf next year, but in the meantime, the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation has already launched the first phase of the Dubai Digital Library.

The DDL aims to preserve national heritage, culture and identity, while building bridges of communication and understanding between cultures.

Jamal bin Huwaireb, the managing director of the foundation, says the first phase involves digitising more than 1,600 books from a wide range of genres, including language, medicine, pharmacy, geography history, religion, sociology, biographies and more.

“It’s a long story, but this has taken us a few years,” he says. “We are also planning phase two, which will be a huge collection. It’s not only books – we’re talking about pictures, maps, manuscripts.”

DDL is collaborative effort that will enlist the help of the public through suggestions, annotations and recommendations.

“This is very important – let people work with you,” says bin Huwaireb. “You cannot be everywhere, you cannot do everything.”

The project will make extensive use of social media. User submissions will be assessed by moderators, who will decide which suggestions to act upon.

“It will be user-friendly, so people can use it and play with it,” says bin Huwaireb. “It’s not just logging onto a website, we want it to be very interactive – video, audio, everything.”

The existing collection mostly consists of older books, related to heritage and tradition, that are in the public domain and free to access – but the library will also encourage unpublished authors to submit work that can be viewed for a fee.

“I believe there are more than 2,000 Arabic books translated in Pakistan, India and Europe every year. We just need to secure the rights for DDL,” says bin ­Huwaireb. The collection will include also audiobooks, newspapers, magazines and dictionaries, and will work closely with universities.

“Students don’t know where to go and if they go to a normal library, they need to stay for ages until they find the information they need,” says bin Huwaireb. “With this library, they can find the information with one click.”

Digitising Arabic literature has its challenges. New York University Abu Dhabi began work on its own digital library, Arabic Collections Online, in 2007. Nine years later, it contains just under 2,000 digital books.

Virginia Danielson, director of the library at NYUAD, says the largest hurdle has been the state of Optical Character Recognition(OCR) technology, which is used to scan the characters. “Because Arabic has three forms of each letter, it’s not as easy to train an OCR system to recognise words,” she says. “You can get it to recognise individual words, but sometimes it can’t deal with a sentence syntax.

“There are some systems out there that work better for Arabic than others, but they all take a fair amount of human intervention to get them to work as well as a user would want.” Most of the available OCR systems function at about 40 per cent accuracy – they can be trained to reach more than 85 per cent, but this takes a lot of time and energy.

“All of this applies to modern fonts,” says Danielson. “If you have older fonts, then you’ve got another problem – and if you’ve got older paper, sometimes the letters bleed through from one side of the page to the other, and then the system doesn’t know what to do, because it can’t recognise anything.”

NYUAD decided to start by scanning books, then implement OCR when the software improves. While some programmes and projects are progressing, older texts still prove difficult.

“I think initially, since we started our project, people have been glad to have what you present to them,” says Danielson. “They like the books and the greater variety the better.”

Some users, however, are looking for very specific information – especially scholars.

“They’re looking for a topic, so they want to search the books for that word or phrase,” she says. “Or, if it’s literature, they’re interested in a concept, or a use of a word – and so that’s where OCR becomes ­important.”

Despite such technical challenges, the library has proved immensely popular.

“Just starting this fall, we started working with librarians, figuring that they would have more patience with the difficulties of such things as OCR than the normal public would,” she says.

“So, we would start by just working with librarians and publicising in the Middle East, Europe and North America. But, we have done nothing with global publicity, and yet we’re seeing usage all over the place.”

Danielson says the library has attracted users not only in the Middle East, but across Asia, from China to Siberia. “It’s stunning,” she says.

“We have some very dedicated readers in Saudi Arabia, who send us little notes.”

Online research revealed the library even had thousands of fans on Facebook, despite not even having a dedicated page on the social-media site at the time.

“We’re starting a Facebook page now and we’ll feature new books,” she says. “By August, we think we’ll have 4,000 or 5,000 books, and at that point we will become a little bit more aggressive about marketing.”

There is huge interest in books in the region, she adds – Arabs have been readers since the 9th century. “There’s a man in Cairo who started an e-book business and he said that the motivating factor for what he was trying to do was to get publishers to release their books as electronic books,” she says.

“He said what motivated him was book sellers in Cairo saying ‘We get requests from all over the country, and very often, it costs more to send the books than the book costs’.

“People are ready for this, and I know that one of the things that a collection online does is it acts as a preservation medium, because it has this very elaborate back-end that will migrate digital files forward when they become obsolete.”

halbustani@thenational.ae

Source: art & life

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