The Gulf’s largest book collection, Qatar’s National Library, has enhanced ties with libraries outside the region and wooed younger readers in its first year, as an anti-Doha boycott drags on.
Scores of children weave in and out of the banked rows of shelves or sit on beanbags clutching books at the foot of the vast columns that support architect Rem Koolhaas’ 45,000-square-metre mega-structure.
Every single book in the children’s library was borrowed in the first six months as the QNL has sought to avoid the stuffiness of some world-class libraries and attract young readers.
It has marketed itself as a “noisy” library and features a 120-seat auditorium and a special events area at the heart of the naturally lit space that is reminiscent of a modern airport.
“All of the books you see in this place can be borrowed by the users,” said the library’s deputy executive director Stuart James Hamilton.
“Unlike many of the national libraries, we have a public library function that goes alongside the national and research library functions.”
With over one million books and 500,000 digital editions, the library, located in Doha’s Education City, is the largest in the Middle East.
But the United Arab Emirates is shooting to outdo Qatar with its Dubai-based Mohammed bin Rashid Library, hoping to house 1.5 million volumes when it opens.
Tensions between the UAE and Qatar erupted in June 2017 when the Emirates joined a Saudi-led alliance that imposed an economic and diplomatic boycott on Doha, accusing it of supporting Iran and Islamist movements – charges Qatar denies.
“We’re in an intriguing situation here politically, but from the library’s perspective it just makes us keener to make sure that our profile is raised and connections are made with other countries,” said Hamilton.
The library has also brought forward plans to collaborate and reach out to libraries outside the region in response to the embargo, Hamilton added.
“We’re accelerating outreach,” he said.
Since opening, the institution has also staged more than 1,000 public events, many featuring authors and scholars from Europe and North America – a symbolic milestone in the face of the regional boycott.
‘Not holding anything back’
Opened on April 16, 2018, the library is part of gas-rich Qatar’s drive to reduce dependence on hydrocarbons and pivot to a knowledge-based economy.
The building is designed to look like folded sheets of paper and employs more than 39 nationalities, has 144,000 members and has loaned more than one million items.
Experts estimate the combined public, university and national library to have cost around US$300 million (€263.8 million).
Inside, rows of pristine white shelves rise up a gently banked incline and architect Koolhaas has previously said he wanted readers to be able to “see all the books in a panorama”.
An open-topped subterranean reading room clad in marble holds heritage materials and artefacts related to Qatari and regional history.
Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, has faced increased scrutiny over freedom of speech since becoming a host nation, and questions have previously been raised about the freedom of libraries in the conservative Gulf region.
Hamilton said that while there was no censorship of material in the library, books had to comply with a set of standards.
“The collection we have started has to be there for its users – we’re not holding anything back,” he said, adding that all new additions must meet collection development guidelines and cannot promote “hate speech”.
“The ones we don’t have in the collection are the ones that don’t meet the standard – we don’t buy everything.”
Volumes on LGBT health are freely available despite homosexuality being illegal in Qatar, as are critical works on the country’s recent political past.
“Any library like the Qatar National Library, (for example) the New York Public Library, needs to reflect the needs and interests of its users and its population so our collection develops in response to what our users want,” he added.
“Certainly, there is no censorship of any materials here.”
Delighted readers from Qatar and around the world have described the collection as “spectacular” and “a paradise for book-lovers”.