To be brutally honest, the reading habit in this region is quite poor. Even with schools and universities prescribing mandatory reading time, we can't call ourselves a reading community. Does that mean we should not make any effort to change things?
Qatar National Library has an agenda of making reading a habit for all nationals.
Certainly not. The government is steamrolling the process of providing its citizens and residents with a state-of-the-art reading institution – the Qatar National Library. Announced in November 2012 by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, this ambitious project is well underaway. Once completed, the 45,000 square metres library building will encourage visitors to explore the progression of knowledge from past to present. The QNL is a non-profit organisation under the umbrella of Qatar Foundation.
Saadi Al Said, Associate Director for Administration and Planning at the QNL, discusses how the project is shaping up. A chemical engineer by profession, Al Said previously worked extensively in the oil and gas sector before switching roles to join the QNL in October 2012. His career graph is akin to that of his home country, Qatar. He elaborates, “The QNL is supporting Qatar on its journey from a carbon-based economy to a knowledge-based economy by providing resources to students, researchers and the community in Qatar. It is in line with Qatar's National Vision 2030.”
Parents and teachers are compelled to compete with a generation that spends more time online than in a library. Al Said acknowledges this. He says, “There is a perception in the Gulf that a library is for old people, and houses a lot of dusty books. Which is why we selected a unique design that offers a lot of open lighting. We will also use a lot of modern technology to make the venue more than just a reading area.”
In keeping with the times, the library has an arm known as the Metropolitan Public Library of the digital age. “We have different sections for different segments of society such as children or researchers. Each member of the family will have something that interests them,” explains Al Said. Besides hosting events, the QNL will have an auditorium with 120 seats, a restaurant and cafe. It is
hoped that the venue will become a spot for visitors from around the world.
Even before the new building opens, the public is able to access the library's wealth of online collections by registering their details with QNL. Dr. Claudia Lux, Project Director of QNL, explains, “Anyone with a valid Qatar ID or residence permit is eligible to sign up and access these free online resources. The wealth of content, ranging from modern and classic literature, to online concerts and academic periodicals, is a treasure trove for everyone in Qatar to explore, enjoy and benefit from.”
Earlier this year the QNL celebrated UNESCO's International Day for Monuments and Sites by showcasing its distinguished Heritage Collection's building to view the library's most prized and historic items. QNL's collection of globes, maps and documents relating to the archaeological site Al Zubarah were especially popular at the event. Founded in 1979 by His Excellency Sheikh Hassan bin Muhammad Al Thani, the Arab and Islamic Heritage Collection includes writings by travellers and explorers who visited the Arabian Gulf region over the centuries, Arab manuscripts, historical maps and globes, as well as scientific instruments and early photography.
QNL's collection features up to 2,400 precious manuscripts, among them ‘Mushafs' (Holy Quran) and Arabic literature, with a primary focus on sciences such as geography, astronomy, mathematics and others. These are complemented by items from the early European reception (early prints in Latin from the 15th - 17th centuries) including the famous ‘Qanon' of Avicenna (IbnSina). “We have an original map which was printed in 1478 and is the first known mention of the word Katara (Qatar) in it,” says Al Said.
The Heritage Collection regularly attracts diplomats and academics from the world over, and was visited by His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales, during his visit to Qatar this February. Nine ambassadors from Argentina, Central African Republic, Costa Rica, Japan, Libya, Morocco, Peru, Switzerland and Turkey and representatives from Greece and Yemen have enjoyed tours of the collection.
His Excellency Ambassador Julio Florian of Peru said, “It's a wonder. Peru and Qatar may be geographically far apart, but through cultural events you can build bridges and that is why this place is so important for every society. It's the way to get closer.” Known to be the very heart of the library, the heritage section will move from a temporary viewing area to the very centre of the QNL. Discussing the collection with pride, Al Said believes. “Sharing these cultural treasures with the community is what drives the mission of the QNL. Our role is to preserve and present Qatar in the region. ”
Another achievement for the library was when it's booth won an award at the recently concluded QITCOM event. Visitors to the exhibition booth, including Qatar's Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior HE Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, witnessed a live demonstration of the digitisation process. Remarking on this Al Said says, “The end result is not just conservation of Qatar's most historic manuscripts and books, but dissemination of this nation's precious wisdom and learned experience on a scale that we have never seen before.” In terms of resources the library has called upon the expertise of quite a few. “We have many nationals who help run the project. There are many international recruits who are working with us as well,” Al Said says. To aid in digitising of material the QNL has partnered with the World Digital Library and the local British Library.
“Over time, we believe that more and more people will realise that the modern library has something for everyone to explore, enjoy and help unlock their potential,” concludes Al Said.
During a tour of the collections and other historic items on QNL's Arab and Islamic Heritage Collection Open Day. On far left is Dr Joachim Gierlichs, Associate Director of Special Collections and Archives. On the far right is Dr Claudi Lux, Project Director of QNL. Al Said is to her right.
SAADI AL SAID Associate Director for Administration and Planning QNL