Building a Library from Scratch: The Qatar National Library

Building a Library from Scratch: The Qatar National Library

Posted by Carly B. Boxer on December 3, 2012 in Blog, Featured.

Fifty years after the construction of the Dar-al-Kutub in Doha, the first national library in the Persian Gulf, the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development has announced a plan to build a new Qatar National Library (QNL). While the plans for the Rem Koolhaus-designed headquarters look spectacular, perhaps more exciting is the QNL’s new digital initiative.

The QNL will be teaming up with the British Library to digitize some 500,000 records, and will post them online long before the QNL’s projected 2014 opening. Also included in the QNL’s new digital offerings will be a Gulf and Arab Science online portal, a feature that will provide access to a wealth of materials representing the history of science and technology in the Gulf region. In a press release, the library describes the portal as “a key cultural asset of Qatar, open to researchers from around the world, students of all classes, and Qatari families researching their own rich cultural histories.”

(The Qatar National Library already contributes to the World Digital Library, but the scale of the QNL’s new digital initiative promises to far outpace the 30something items the QNL has contributed to the WDL’s database. I’m interested to see just what the new QNL online resources will include…)

The QNL offers a large-scale plan to rebuild a library — both physically and digitally –from scratch; it’s a rare chance to rethink what it is that library users actually want. The QNL seems to have taken the significance of this opportunity to heart, recognizing that the rebuilding project will create “a place between home and work, where all Qataris can meet friends, enjoy moments with their families and spend leisure and creative time in their personal journey in search of knowledge and cultural experiences.”

So, how do you choose what goes into a reimagined, rebuilt library?

This past week, I had the chance to hear Jeffrey Schnapp, faculty director at metaLAB, speak about re-envisioning what constitutes “the archive” at a panel at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts. Schnapp discussed the Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters as an alternative to the traditional notion of the archive — that is, as a more democratic way to preserve cultural histories than typical highly-curated collections of  documents deemed important enough to keep.

In building an archive of documents of the 2011 earthquake in Japan as the events unfolded, metaLAB gathered an egalitarian series of photos, maps, press releases, and even tweets. The database allows users to collect documents and arrange them into presentation-style groupings; the archive gives curatorial powers to the people seeking to access the information it holds.

If the re-envisioned archive is a platform for the real-time, democratic representation of a historical event, what can we expect from the re-envisioned library? The QNL seems to be endorsing a future library that provides access beyond its own physical space, making historical resources readily available and encouraging creative, collaborative work inside its walls. Sounds pretty good to me.

Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson on Flickr; used under a CC BY 2.0 license.



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