Qatar’s Digital Library

This is a story I researched in 2014 and 2015, and wrote in 2016. Shortly after I’d filed, the editor who commissioned it apologised and said things had changed: he could no longer publish it. Nonetheless, he paid me in full (yes, such editors do exist). I left it a while, hoping he might change his mind and run it anyway, but now he’s given me a definitive no. So I’m publishing it here. It’s old now and it needs an edit – today, in 2018, I’d include more politics, and less on the principles of digitisation, which are more familiar now than 3-4 years ago – and it also needs an update: some of my interviewees are no longer in post, and the Qatar National Library building is now open. But I enjoyed writing it, and I’m happy I can give it an airing.


They could so easily be cynical. Facing each other across a horseshoe of tables, girls on one side, boys on the other, these teenagers might, in other situations, preen, pose, or even scoff.

Instead, there’s an air of concentration. Heads crowd together. Shoulders hunch as fingers swipe to and fro across tablet screens, or tap at laptop keyboards.

“I like it a lot – it’s like I’m looking at history on the screen,” comments Abdelrahman, a college freshman majoring in mass communications.

Hebzi, studying public policy, has been absorbed in scrolling chunks of text in Arabic and English. “The translation is very good. I’m very impressed.”

High-school student Ameera gestures at her tablet in wonder.

“You’re holding a map from 1880 on your 21st-century iPad,” she says.

Corralled in a room at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University student centre, in Qatar’s capital city, Doha, these eight students formed one of the first groups to test a new web portal dubbed the Qatar Digital Library (QDL). This online resource – part of the Qatar National Library’s collections – is the result of an ongoing ten-year project to digitise and publish millions of documents relating to the history of the Gulf.

The project was developed in partnership with the British Library.

But this is a tale less about libraries, and more about how nations grow intellectual underpinnings. As Qatar and other Gulf countries redefine their relationships to the former colonial power, Britain, they are also reclaiming their own history. That’s happening metaphorically, with local perspectives emerging amid critical analysis of accepted narratives, but also literally, through projects like the QDL.

Most historical source material on the Middle East is held in archives in far-away capitals: London’s British Library is just one example. Until now, only scholars resident nearby, or with the resources to travel and request access in person, have been able to study it.

It is those scholars, therefore, who have written the history.

But the QDL – the most ambitious of the Middle East’s digitisation programmes – is now giving anyone with an internet connection, wherever they might be, free access to the historical sources.

This universality is unprecedented. The sources are being returned – virtually – to their countries of origin through digitisation, and opened to all. Previously accepted histories, ideas, and even identities can be tested anew by an incomparably wider readership than before.

In short, the QDL heralds a realignment of who writes the Middle East’s history.

The project developed from discussions held in 2010 between the British Library and the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a nonprofit organisation set up by the Qatari royal family whose aim is to shift Qatar to a knowledge-based economy.

First, why Britain?

The Gulf was never formally part of the British Empire, but came under colonial administration after being targeted for its trade potential in the 17th century by Britain’s East India Company. In 1858, the East India Company became an executive arm of the British government, known as the India Office.

The India Office administered a swathe of territory stretching from modern-day Burma as far west as Aden in Yemen, including a string of settlements along both shores of the Gulf. As technology improved during the 19th century, British administrators began to realise the importance of the Gulf as a conduit, particularly for seaborne trade with India. Telegraph cables laid along the Gulf’s seabed established direct lines of communication between London and Bombay.

The records those administrators kept, over more than 300 years – government papers, diplomatic dispatches, letters, diaries, financial receipts, maps, sketches, photographs, notes, and more – were eventually transferred to London after the abolition of the India Office in 1947.

There they remain, millions of documents occupying nine miles of shelving within the British Library – the most important collection of primary source material on Gulf history in the world.

“All libraries are changing how they serve their patrons. They now need to provide access both to physical materials and to online content,” says John Van Oudenaren, a programme director on international outreach at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

“It has always been a mission of libraries to provide copies of documents in their holdings to interested researchers [and] readers. This previously was done by photocopying and microfilming. In the 19th century the United States even employed clerks who would go to libraries in Europe and copy by hand documents relating to US history. Now this is being done digitally.”

In the 1990s, archives around the world launched large-scale digitisation projects, including national libraries in Norway, South Korea, Germany, and the United States. The trend extended to the Arab World: Saudi Arabia began digitising its national archives, and cooperation with European institutions enabled many smaller collections in the region to digitise, including the Al Aqsa Mosque Library in Jerusalem, and the Fouad Debbas collection of historic photographs in Beirut.

By the late 2000s, with the rise in global influence of Gulf states including the UAE and Qatar, the pace of cultural cooperation began to accelerate.

Richard Gibby, of the British Library, takes up the story.

“The British Library’s mission [includes] making our collections available worldwide, so we were looking for partners, particularly in the Gulf region in respect of the India Office Records. At the same time, the Qatar Foundation was interested in advancing education and community development in Qatar and the Gulf. There was a coming together.”

After more than two years of discussions, in 2012 the British Library and the Qatar Foundation signed a partnership agreement, launching a mammoth ten-year digitisation project. This, unusually, included complete publication online as well as a programme of contextual pieces to help guide readers around the mass of material, written by the British Library’s specialists.

More than forty full-time staff were taken on, integrated alongside the British Library’s existing expertise on curation, technology, and procurement. An entire floor of the British Library building in London was taken over and remodelled to accommodate them.

With the quantity of material involved, project managers devised a new workflow. First, batches of records are identified for retrieval from the British Library’s storage shelves. Phase one of the digitisation project, from 2012 to 2014, focused on two such collections – from Bushire (now Bushehr), on the Gulf’s northern shore, which was Britain’s main base in the region between 1763 and 1946; and from Bahrain, opposite on the southern shore, a port since the Bronze Age and long an economic hub for its pearl fisheries. British officials stationed in both towns generated vast amounts of paperwork over the centuries, filed – sometimes carelessly – in thousands of boxes, bound books, or loose-leaf files.

Conservators receiving those files work first to preserve each paper item contained within. Specialist researchers then re-catalogue each item, which may have spent decades unnoticed, sometimes because of poor labelling. They add identifying keywords and subject tags – known as “metadata” – to the new digital catalogue record.

The item is then carried a few metres across the office to imaging technicians, who scan everything to do with it, including covers, ribbon ties, folds, marks, seals, stamps, additional notes, even damage. They may also photograph it, to preserve as much detail of the archival original as possible.

Computer specialists then run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on the scanned file to convert typescripts – and even some manuscripts – into searchable text. This OCR process is relatively straightforward for English type, with its separate letters, but notoriously difficult in Arabic, whose printed text uses variable, cursive letter forms: Experience gathered over the last few years on this project, Richard Gibby explains, has helped refine and advance Arabic OCR software worldwide.

Then, the scan is uploaded to the digital library itself and published online, where it can be viewed at the QDL’s website Access to the site is free, without registration, and all content is navigable in English and Arabic.

Digitisation thus creates a preservation copy, a surrogate that allows conservators to better safeguard the original. It also represents the chance to create new catalogue records with detailed metadata for intuitive search, and to introduce the document to new readerships. Fresh curatorial connections between archive institutions often follow.

Academics, too, see tangible benefits.

“The QDL has afforded a crucial resource for students who seek to conduct archival research for which little to no funds are available for travel to London,” says professor of history at Yale University Rosie Bsheer.

“I have had two or three students each semester who base their research papers on these archives.”

She continued: “[The QDL] will not only break the financial, physical, and other barriers of conducting research on the Gulf and its peoples, which have been marginalised from history. But, in reading these digital archives against the grain, it will also allow us to study the politics of knowledge production more broadly.”

Digitisation, however, does have drawbacks. For many researchers, the most important discoveries are often the unexpected ones – a misfiled document unearthed while leafing through unrelated material, or getting your hands on the file you thought you wanted, only to spot something even more interesting just along the same shelf. Even with meticulous metadata, such serendipity largely evaporates online.

“Digitisation also allows for increased control of archival documents, as well as improved monitoring of what records any given researcher is trying to access,” says Rosie Bsheer, who offers a clear take on the merit of the QDL project: “We should welcome any endeavour to make archives more accessible, while critiquing the ways in which knowledge is organised and categorised.”

Phase one of the British Library Qatar Foundation partnership ended in October 2014, when the QDL website was launched to the public with around 150,000 pages online. By late 2016, well into phase two (which runs until December 2018), the QDL held almost a million pages, and the digitisation process had been expanded to include records spanning the years between 1600 and 1967, adding material from the British administrative posts at Kuwait and Muscat, and also including tens of thousands of documents from the British Library’s holdings of Arabic manuscripts on science, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and geography dating back to the 9th century.

“This is unique in its scale and scope,” says Richard Gibby. “The British Library has many other partnerships, but what makes this project special is the variety of content we are covering – and the amount of metadata we are creating for search.”

“The QDL is a magnificent resource for finding out what life here was like, what foreign perceptions were like, who the people were, the geography as well as the history,” says Dr Frederick Nesta, senior lecturer in library and information studies at University College London’s teaching facility in Doha.

“The standards are very good. It was very hard for me and my students to find things that were wrong.”

Yet the QDL was conceived as part of an even larger project – to create a national library almost from scratch. In 2012, at the 50th anniversary celebrations for Doha’s Dar Al Kutub (an Arabic term usually translated as “national library”), Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, chair of the Qatar Foundation, announced the establishment of a new library that would replace and extend Dar Al Kutub. The new Qatar National Library (QNL) would have a three-fold function, she said, serving as a national archive, a specialist academic research library and a metropolitan city library open to the public.

“Most national libraries sit on the hill and collect things, but [the QNL] is similar in concept to the National Library of Singapore, in terms of outreach and development – a research library, a public library, and a children’s library,” says Frederick Nesta, who runs a one-year programme to train local librarians for the QNL.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas was commissioned to design the QNL building. While construction work continued, the library began operating digitally from temporary premises, opening online access to its own catalogs as well as global library databases, devising public education programmes targeting children, students, and researchers, and launching the QDL as part of its digital collections.

However, despite the branding, relatively little of the QDL’s content is about Qatar as a nation: it’s much broader than that, encompassing the Gulf as a whole – and beyond. So why is Qatar doing this?

“There is not much written history about Qatar,” says Claudia Lux, project director of the QNL (which awaits a physical home in Koolhaas’s new building). “But people from Qatar are not just from Qatar. From Kuwait to Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, the Gulf region is of interest to them. Most of the Gulf countries have copied historical material about their country, but they keep it in research institutes. I don’t believe it’s a good thing to have all these copies in different institutes. The QDL is really something we want to showcase as an example. Hopefully others will follow and open up their material.”

There is also the issue of soft power – the ability of a country to project its values and improve its international standing without the use of force. Acutely conscious of global attention in the build-up to its hosting of the football World Cup in 2022, Qatar is using its self-declared role as a pioneer of intellectual society-building as a soft power lever.

Yet deeper motivations are also in play.

“My sense is that it’s something that started with Hamad bin Khalifa [Qatar’s emir 1995-2013] and Sheikha Moza [Hamad’s wife],” says Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations and dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha, who has studied Qatar for three decades.

“It’s a reimagining of what Qatar could be – and part of it, I’ve become convinced over the years, is a genuine commitment to kickstarting a flowering of education culture, scientific development, human capacity-building. [The QDL] is one component of that. The fact that it might also have other rationales, about branding, about prestige, about visibility, doesn’t mean that it’s not also genuine in substance.”

For Nonneman, investment in mass digitisation – and, crucially, publication – of historical sources points to a top-level desire to reshape society.

“A national museum very often is not about simply giving unbiased access to historical documentation – it’s part of a nation-building exercise, creating a national image. But working with an external collection to make existing documentation available for anybody – that’s different. It’s part of nation-building, but at one remove. It’s saying, ‘We are the kind of nation that opens this [material] up to people.’”

“The QDL may help change perceptions about access to knowledge,” continues Nonneman. “The very idea that something one sees doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘right’ to be acceptable, but is a piece of evidence that people ought to be able to judge for themselves – that’s crucial in building critical thinking skills.”

He suggests there is extra value to the idea of creating a digital library such as the QDL.

“There are lots of ways in which people can be helped to engage with knowledge and information. How do you draw in kids? Young people? It’s not just about books. [The QDL] is potentially a very exciting way of getting students into the whole idea of examining evidence. With there being relatively little hard evidence of the past here – a lot of it was lived experience – there’s a real thirst for engaging with what things were like. And there it is, right in front of them on their computers, to which they always have access. That’s an exciting tool.”

The QDL’s potential also resonates with the Doha students testing it out.

“The new generation are going to use technology even more than us,” says Ameera, 17. “We’re not connected enough to our history – it’s nice to give [that connection] in a new way.”

“An online library is more beneficial in today’s world than having the physical paper,” adds Nasser Marzouq, 19, a college freshman. “It’s better to have an electronic copy that everyone can write notes on than to have to go all the way to the library to see the [original]. We don’t have a lot of recorded history from our perspective, so when you see a document online, that makes a difference. It’s not a person behind the screen who typed it up, it’s the actual signed letter from 100 years ago in front of me.”

That thirst for knowledge of past lives extends beyond the doings of colonial administrators. Qatar is currently hosting multiple projects, in both public and private spheres, devoted to oral history and what the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has termed “intangible cultural heritage” – meaning all those elements of culture that can’t be placed in display cabinets, such as stories, poems, songs, recipes, and ideas.

“We have heritage,” says Dr Kaltham Al Ghanim, a social sciences professor at Qatar University. She has been preserving and publishing local folk tales for more than 25 years. “People keep looking for knowledge from other societies, but our culture is rich. It’s very important for the next generation to be more confident about what they have. My mission is to help development of my country.”

“There’s a danger of Qatar losing its history, as the country modernises,” says Nasser Al Khori, of Qatar Foundation. “[We want] to modernise while keeping hold of culture. A lot of our history is shared through storytelling and we don’t have written archives like the British Library – it’s very interesting to see the perspectives in the QDL’s material. And these resources are online: We can show [QDL scans] to our grandparents, and they can tell us if they believe something else happened.”

Digitisation has global ramifications. During the late 2000s, teams at the Library of Congress, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, and UNESCO developed the World Digital Library (WDL), conceived as a platform for sharing of cultural works and archival resources on the open web. The WDL launched in 2009 with more than thirty partner institutions around the world, including Qatar.

John Van Oudenaren at the Library of Congress – who has directed the WDL since its inception – told me how the QNL contributes rare books, manuscripts, and maps to the WDL, and coordinates collaboration across the Middle East.

“The WDL has partners in Egypt, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries. Our goal is to have at least one partner in every country in the world, as well as to increase the number and variety of Arabic-language content on the WDL,” he said.

The WDL – and a similar European Union project named Europeana – neither own nor digitise their own material. Instead, they act as aggregators, presenting metadata on works held by (and digitised by) their partner institutions under a single digital roof.

But they can only exist if the institutions that hold primary source material are able to digitise their holdings in the first place – which is why Qatar’s initiative to digitise the British Library’s records on the Gulf has such profound implications.

Sipping coffee in Doha, student Nasser Marzouq grasps the potential.

“Maybe we’ll reverse it, and one day have our own archives about the British,” he jokes.