July 31, 2018
A $500,000 grant will help NYU Abu Dhabi make books in Arabic available to displaced populations all over the world
by Francesca Capossela
An Arabic digital library has received a $500,000 grant for its ongoing efforts to digitize Arabic texts and make their files accessible. Arabic Collections Online began as an academic undertaking at NYU Abu Dhabi, supported by other prestigious universities and libraries. But it soon became clear that the project’s potential was much broader, as Melissa Gronlund reports for the Abu Dhabi-based National. Looking at usage data, Arabic Collections Online began to notice that most of its views were coming from the Middle East — notably Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. As they watched the trend grow, they realized that refugees and communities without access to libraries or bookstores were using the site to find reading and educational material.
A librarian at the University of Mosul confirmed this trend, saying that where libraries have been bombed and homes destroyed, the Arabic Collections website is granting communities access to essential education resources. Unintentionally, the project was providing much more than an academic database. It offered what every community needs, and many lack. Namely: books.
Once the team realized how many Arabic readers were interested in accessing digital texts, especially in rural or refugee communities, the focus of the project shifted, Ginny Danielson, head of the NYUAD library, told Gronlund. It became, she says, “not a preservation imperative but an access imperative.” What had begun as a project meant to preserve texts for academic scholarship and for future generations, became a humanitarian effort for the current moment.
Since 2010, Arabic Collections Online has digitized roughly 8,000 out-of-copyright books. Their goal is to get to 20,000 by 2021. Currently, eighty percent of usage is in the Middle East, with the remainder spread across the globe. A great and indispensable resource has grown from digitization technology, a major focus of global investment by NYU, and from the data that allowed Danielson and her team to notice unexpected trends. The program’s success should be an inspiration to other academics, who might be well served by thinking more broadly.
In recent years, we’ve covered the United Arab Emirates’ emergence as a global center for book culture in some depth. As for Arabic Collections Online, the beautiful, digitized texts are accessible on the project’s website.
Francesca Capossela is an intern at Melville House.