From the restoration of documents to the fight against smuggling, the QNL is a hub of expertise committed to preserving the region's documentary heritage
The Qatar National Library plays a vital part in the country’s goal of diversifying away from oil and gas to become a knowledge-based economy. It’s a treasure trove of information - from the region’s culture and history to cutting-edge digitisation technology. But it also acts as a regional centre of expertise, both in restoration techniques and the fight against the trafficking of stolen documents.
An awe-inspiring building
The Qatar National Library doesn't look like a traditional old-fashioned library. Its purpose-built design is layered in symbolism.
"The awe in visitors' eyes as they step in, as their eye scans the whole building, it’s really pleasing to see," says Hind Al Khulaifi, Director of Strategic Planning and Projects. "Once you come in, your eyes can actually see most of the sections of the library.
"It was designed to have the tiers elevated, and to give a sense that with reading, with learning, your soul can be elevated, your consciousness can be elevated. The beauty of this building is it’s fully illuminated by natural light, also another symbolism for the elevation of the soul through light, through learning."
Al Khulaifi believes modern libraries should also serve as community hubs. Of course, you’ll find books – plenty of them in fact. But you’ll also find study spaces, innovation stations and sensory rooms.
"We want people to inquire," she says. "We want people to investigate, we want people to discover and increase their curiosity through having access to such an abundant amount of resources across different subjects."
The Qatar National Library aims to create an open space for learning. So while someone may, for example, be drawn to the library’s Innovation Station to pick up an instrument or even record a podcast, the hope is that they will also be inspired to pick up a book and learn more about the theory behind it.
The Heritage Library
Designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Qatar National Library opened its doors in 2018. At the heart of the QNL, you’ll find the Heritage library. It resembles an archaeological site and is home to maps, manuscripts and photos documenting the region’s rich history.
"The exhibition is focused not only on Arab history," says Tour & Exhibition Officer Ikhlas Ahmed. "It's focused on Islamic history, in general, Islamic civilization. How for example the manuscripts travelled from area to area until the people started to exchange their knowledge."
That knowledge transfer is symbolic of the concept of the national library. As Qatar moves from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy, the QNL provides a platform to share knowledge both physically and digitally.
"It's very important to read about the region from the other perspective, the travellers’ record," says Ahmed. "Because they were the pioneers I would say, since the 15th, since the 16th century. They came to the region with different purposes. With their diaries, we can read the past of that time."
The library has one of the earliest references to Napoleon Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries.
"It's considered the first illustration of Egypt at that time," says Ahmed. "Because many scientists, many historians, many scholars documented every part during that expedition. It’s one of the important primary resources to see how life was over there, from different perspectives."
The heritage library is also home to the first printed map, dating back to the 15th century, that ever mentions modern-day Qatar - identified in Latin as Catara, with a C.
Digitising the collection
The next step is to digitise those ancient materials, to preserve them for generations to come. The library’s digitisation specialists can convert 2,000 to 2,500 pages per day. Hany A Elsawy Abdellatifi is Head of Digitisation Services at Qatar National Library.
"We started in 2015," he says. "Until now we reached more than 14 million pages between books, manuscripts, periodicals, posters, maps, photographs and much more. We’re focusing on the language of Arabic. So, we’re trying just to enrich the content of Arabic and to enable it online for researchers, educators and even simple users. So, anyone, from anywhere, anytime can access the collection."
And while heritage works may sound like niche material, that’s not necessarily the case. In 2021, the library says more than 2.5 million people used its electronic resources.
"I think it clearly proves that heritage material, when it is put online and is freely accessible to everyone, as we do, really has a lot of potential," says Marcin Werla, Director of Digital Content & Engagement at Qatar National Library. "It’s something that’s of interest to a lot of people. Not only specifically from the country but really, from the region, from the whole world. We get online visitors from the whole world."
"Aside from digitising our own collection," says Tan Huism, Executive Director at Qatar National Library. "We’re also working with different partnerships, for example, our partnership with the British Library to digitise materials about the Gulf in their archives for the world to see and be made accessible to everyone. So, that’s a very important part of our role as being the guardian for the region and Qatar’s documentary heritage."
Preserving the country’s rich heritage, in an ultra-modern library, one book at a time.
Preservation and conservation department
QNL is home to more than one million books. Readers can choose to relax anywhere in the 42,000 square-metre seating area. And while it has all the things you might expect from a library, including a café, children’s section and restaurant, what perhaps makes it most unique is the preservation and conservation department.
The IFLA Preservation and Conservation Regional Center, or PAC, is beyond the section of the library that’s open to the public, down in the basement. Its mandate is simple: help protect books and manuscripts from across the Arab region.
"There are millions of Arabic and Islamic manuscripts in the region, and there's not the means to preserve and conserve all of them," says Stephane Ipert, Director of Distinctive Collections at Qatar National Library. "So, we can't be stand-ins for everyone and save all the heritage, but we can train people. So, here we have a technical assistance department where we provide training, technical advice, and we also host people here for training, on all issues concerning conservation and preservation, whether it be manuscripts, newspapers, maps… In this way, we can provide what we call ‘capacity building’ to help people improve and take better care of their collections."
Conservation Technologist Fareed AlShishani specialises in inorganic materials. His role at QNL is all about the prevention of damage, conservation, and risk management. Fareed and other members of the team look after all the items in the Heritage library, as well as books, maps and manuscripts. It’s a varied job – for example going as far as assessing the metals in an astrolabe.
"We have a system for monitoring temperature and humidity that works remotely connected by Wi-Fi," he says. "So, just looking at the computer, I can check the temperature and humidity in storage areas and in the exhibition. And also if we have objects on loan, this system allows us to connect to any Wi-Fi in the world and we monitor it remotely from our computers and actually our smartphones."
In 2022, QNL opened the first mass deacidification plant in the region. Books or newspapers produced after the 1850s have more issues than older manuscripts – as the materials or wood pulp used are more likely to be acidic.
"This deacidification plant is a system that uses a material called magnesium oxide that is suspended in a solution," explains AlShishani. "The thing that makes the system special is that it treats in mass so we don't treat just one item or, or like ten items. We can treat up to like 50 items per day. And then when we finish the treatment, we put them in the dryers, and that takes all the liquid that was used, and that is remaining in the materials. It takes it back and puts it back in the system so it recycles the material somehow. And so, it's cost-effective, environmentally friendly."
The PAC Center’s mandate of book protection extends beyond conservation. Experts here are focused on training and tackling a widespread and growing problem: smuggling.
The trafficking of historical records and other archive materials has been rising in the MENA region due to the number of countries experiencing conflict and upheaval.
But books and literature are much less likely to be protected by national legislation than other artefacts. That’s why the PAC Centre training sessions on the laws surrounding smuggling and looting are so important.
"We financed the travel of Yemeni experts to come here and participate with us in training," says Ipert. "To have them meet with international experts, the police, customs officers… who may be can't get to Yemen very easily at the moment. We explain procedures to them and the legal framework, because you have to understand the legal framework to be able to better tackle trafficking. We explain the restitution process to them. And we have developed here with the Qatar Foundation's other IT departments a unit which automatically monitors social networks day and night to try to identify posts that might be linked to trafficking. So, every morning, our experts get lists of posts and by checking a sale against library databases they see whether it's legitimate or whether it could be related to smuggling. So, it's a lot of work, but it's really important to keep the legacy of the Islamic world alive."
Criminals are coming up with increasingly ingenious ways of smuggling and using technology to help them do so.
"Manuscripts are quite small compared to archaeological artefacts," he says. "So, in practical terms, they travel even more easily, they're easy to export and then sell on the European markets. So, over the past three years, we've developed in cooperation with Interpol, with the international customs union and with other experts a program to fight very specifically against the trafficking of Islamic manuscripts. So, we have a team here that monitors sales: at auction, but also sales on social networks, because there's an important change now where people are doing this kind of traffic more and more on the Dark Web and on social networks. It's less easy to control by the police. So, we're monitoring all these activities."
Whether it’s the modern techniques used to safeguard the library’s personal collection, or the training and workshops being run to prevent the smuggling of priceless manuscripts across the entire region, it’s clear that preservation and conservation are two very important aims of the PAC Center and the whole of the Qatar National Library.