Jessica Davey-Quantick goes to her happy place at the new Heritage Collection, the first physical part of the upcoming Qatar National Library.
The Heritage Collection is exactly what a library should be. It’s cool with dark wooden spiral staircases, and shelves and shelves of books. Each room is slightly different, but they all have one thing in common: they’re holding a massive collection of books that shine a light on Qatar’s heritage. A heritage that Qatar National Library Director Dr. Claudia Lux says many people have yet to discover.
‘I think the surprise for everybody who is coming here is they think, Oh what is Qatar?’ she says. ‘I think what we want to show is there is more in culture here and it is based on the collection over years.’ When Dr. Lux first starting exploring the history she says she was surprised by the collections they found and they’re still looking for more. She explains how, over the years, families in Qatar have accumulated great private collections and this is how the National Library came into being.
‘Everyone can go there, everyone can see it. It’s not just for elite, it’s for everybody. It’s for Qataris and also for expats.’
The Qatar National Library is set to fully open by the beginning of 2015 with plans to have more than 450,000 volumes in everything from fiction and research materials in English and Arabic. Lux says there will be a special emphasis on children’s books so parents can read to their kids in every language.
Currently, users can get to the National Library online, and get access to their materials there, including music, films, audio books and more.
Or, they can visit the Heritage Collection.
‘The Heritage Collection is a very important part of the new national library. lt’s something like the heart because it collects everything that is related to the history of Qatar and to the history of the region,’ she says.
The collection has around 500 maps, including the oldest ones where ‘Katara’ was first mentioned, from the 15th century.
Other highlights are diaries, books and reports by people who travelled through the region, old photographs, and even travellers’ medical kits. Plus, among its more than 100,000 works, it contains an edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, which was printed in Rome in 1478.
But in the end, it’s all about the books.They have them of all ages, in many languages, and all sizes – even a miniature Qur’an that requires a magnifying glass to read.
On top of all that, Lux says, ‘We have a wonderful big collection of thousands of books of how the Arab printing was developed. And also in the Heritage Library we have more than 2,000 manuscripts.’
These manuscripts, she tells us, are split into two elements: one related to the holy Qur’an and the other on Islamic studies. ‘But we also have manuscripts on the Islamic sciences, meaning the development of horses, some scientific, medicine.’ The library is home to a manuscript written by Ibn Sina, an Arabic philosopher and scientist, who literally wrote the book on Middle Eastern medicine in the 1st century.
The greatest thing about this collection in our opinion is you can actually touch the artefacts. Within reason and often with gloves of course. Lux says they’re making it more like an interactive exhibition. ‘We want to activate people,’ she says. ‘We want to give them training in how to write a story or do their own poems or develop a mixture of reading and creativity... So we are looking for the contents. A library, as I always say, is not about books – it’s about the content.
‘Content can be in different ways. It may be that all the people who are 16 years old today don’t want to open the books but they still want the content and they’ll look at it on their gadgets.’ With that in mind, Lux tells us that they’re making an effort to ‘digitise’. They’ve even got some big projects coming up with the British Library based around online concepts.
We admire all of their efforts to make this project accessible to everyone, as having a library is always important, but never more so than in Qatar, where many residents – whether nationals or expats – are unaware of the history here. ‘Heritage is something that you have to preserve,’ believes Lux. ‘And the National Library preserves material for more than 110 years. We were supplying regional libraries and we have a very small preservation lab here. It’s a very scientific activity!
‘I think the most important thing is that this country needs to have [its] identity collected. The identity we have on paper, in pictures, to have it collected here in one place and keep it for the future because if you know, maybe in 200 years, somebody wants to know what was written in Time Out, who will collect it? Who will have it? And that is what a national library is for: we are the ones, we have to collect it.’
While Qatar has opened many other cultural icons the literary landscape hasn’t been highlighted. Until now.
‘Why is it happening? Qatar wants to develop especially for the Qatar mission to become a knowledge society. I think there is no option to become a knowledge society without the library,’ she says. Parents are very interested in the concept as well, says Lux, particularly as it revolves around books even if she does advocate the iPad sometimes. ‘There’s a lot to discuss about this and I think this place, Qatar, with all these changes, is a wonderful place to discuss it.’
The Heritage Collection is open to the public free of charge. Public tours are available every Sunday and Tuesday from 10am-11.30am. Request in advance on www.qnl.qa/visit-request-form. For more email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 4454 2555.