It’s 8am and Qatar National Library (QNL) is opening its doors to the public. The muted morning sunlight streams through the windows of a place that Rem Koolhaas – the renowned Dutch architect who designed the building – describes as “an amphitheater of knowledge that surrounds you the moment you walk in.”
Today, one of the first to sample this immersive experience is Eleyan Saed, an international master’s student. At home, with his family around him, Eleyan sometimes finds it difficult to concentrate on his studies, so the library is a haven of serenity when he’s under pressure to meet deadlines.
“I value the space that QNL offers me,” he says. “It’s big enough so I can find a quiet corner to get down to work.”
At 45,000sq m, QNL is certainly “big enough.”
It has a unique three-tier design for distributing books and other media, and a wide variety of individual study carrels, reading areas and group study rooms.
Eleyan is working at one of the many computer terminals, which are equipped with the latest Fujitsu desktops.
“The high-speed internet is a plus, and it’s free, like most of the other library facilities,” he says.
“This is a remarkable kind of support for students like me. I can’t study at home, so I’m grateful to those who make it possible for me to work in such a wonderful space for free.”
By 9am, a few more people have joined Eleyan at the computer stations.
A few are starting the day with a cup of coffee and a home-baked pastry from the Safahat Coffee Bar & Bakehouse, situated in the centre of QNL’s vast Main Plaza.
QNL keeps long hours, and employs 183 staff.
Jooza al-Marri, QNL’s Collections Development manager, was the first Qatari to be appointed and also the first local to obtain a master’s degree in librarianship.
“I am proud to be part of the team changing the library culture here in Qatar. We are changing perceptions about libraries and I encourage our whole community and especially the youth to be part of this change,” says Jooza.
“I would advise anyone from Qatar who is deciding their future career path, to look to QNL. I’m very proud to have been the first Qatari working at QNL and to be using my master’s degree here.”
QNL welcomed more than 738,000 visitors since its public opening, and has more than 139,000 registered members.
Patrons come for any number of reasons – to check out books, for a quiet study session, to meet with peers for group work, or to take advantage of the myriad of other offerings, such as the Innovation Stations or the Heritage Library. Meanwhile, the events and activities which run year-round are always well-attended.
In the main plaza, women are gathering for the weekly Knitting and Crochet Circle. Dr Noora is the first to arrive. She came to Qatar in 1976 and has lived here ever since, marrying and raising her family. The other women inch closer to her as she reminisces about a different time – a time when necessity was the mother of invention.
“My first baby was a premature birth,” she recalls. “Back then it was a struggle to find tiny baby clothes so I was forced to learn to knit or crochet to make clothes for my newborn. My daughters have no interest in handcraft, so this is how I pass on the craft.”
The women in the circle are all of different nationalities and ages, drawn together not only to sew or to knit, but also to enjoy each other’s company.
The newest member has recently moved to Qatar with her husband and she has brought along their six-month-old son, who curiously observes his new surroundings from his pushchair.
“I don’t know how to knit or crochet. But that’s not the only reason why I’m here,” she says, suggesting that the opportunity to make new friends and socialise is also a factor in her attendance.
Lara Oliver, the librarian who runs the circle, draws her into the handicraft project.
“What begins as a casual gathering to work on handwork projects and share skills can become a way to find a circle of friends or a personal network,” she says.
By mid-morning, QNL is a hub of activity.
Upstairs, Souley Oumarou and Idris Stokes are ensconced in one of the open work areas. They are both wearing headphones, but exchange a friendly word or two from time to time.
Idris is an American children’s literature author working on finishing his third book. When he’s not in the library, he tours local schools as part of Qatar’s National Reading Campaign.
“I choose to work in the library because it has access to everything I could possibly need, even a theatre,” he says, referring to the Special Events Area that is often the venue for theatrical productions, lectures and concerts.
“Because my books are presented as plays, the theatre is a great place for me to get a visual idea of how I can tell the story.”
Always mindful of the need to meet deadlines, Idris values his time.
“I hate running around from coffee shop to coffee shop. That kind of hectic pace reminds me of being back home in New York. The library gives me all the space and time I need. You can be here as long as you want.”
Souley is an independent video producer. He drops his kids at the nearby Swiss International School in the morning, then comes to QNL – which he jokingly refers to as “my office” – to work on editing video footage for his clients.
“I’d rather be here in this open space than in my little room at home, sad and drinking coffee, surrounded by distractions,” he confesses. “QNL is convenient, comfortable and has everything you need – even a restaurant to grab a quick bite or a coffee. Once you check in, you check in. If I forget my headphones or a charger, the staff give me one. And, of course, they have a million books, too. It’s a positive environment, and you only meet people who share that mindset.”
Souley moves on to the Innovation Station to put together a video using the suite of digital production and audiovisual technologies.
“I have my own 15-inch laptop for work, but the Innovation Station has helped me take my projects to a whole other level,” he reveals.
“Have you seen this place? It has a full range of iMacs and all the latest software, which I don’t have, such as Adobe After Effects and other applications from the Creative Cloud. Also, it’s just better to work off the 27-inch displays. The iMacs have better graphics cards installed, so they are a lot faster and smoother to edit on.”
Souley is also a fan of QNL’s music studio.
“Idris and I have worked together in the studio to produce an audiobook from one of his stories. I often use the green screen room for shooting videos. The library has everything I need, and it’s all free. I even love the breakfast at the restaurant.”
At the Children’s Library, Mariam al-Thani, a social and economic researcher at Qatar University, and her two children are skimming through the shelves filled with colourful storybooks.
“I come here often and help my children select their favourites,” says Mariam.
“The Children’s Library is helping my children develop their reading habits to be informed citizens in the future. Being with my children at QNL also gives me an opportunity to take a break from daily work and get sucked into some of my favourite books.”
Nearby, Imman Rammal, who has a visual impairment, is deep in concentration in the Adaptive Services section.
“Bookshare is an exciting service,” she says. “It’s an online library that lets you listen to a book or read it in braille, and I can access it free as a QNL member.”
QNL’s dedicated assistive technology space supports visitors with disabilities to research, study or read independently, using facilities such as screen readers installed on the computers and braille books in Arabic and English.
Iman is a special education teacher in braille, information technology and English at the Al Noor Institute for the Blind. She loves to read and spends as much time as she can at the library.
“When I discovered that QNL is accessible, I was overjoyed. It opens up tremendous possibilities for the visually impaired, which makes those of us with disabilities feel we are equal and independent. It’s very important for national institutions to be inclusive of people with disabilities and ensure equal access,” says Iman.
“The staff members at the library are so helpful, and I work with them on our shared plans for the visually disabled.”
By now it’s lunchtime, and the cafeteria is packed—a bustling social place where visitors engage in animated conversations as they eat.
One of them is Anneke, who is originally from Sweden and is visiting the Children’s Library with her two kids.
“We come in about once a month and we usually spend a couple of hours,” says Anneke.
“My nine-year-old benefits more than the younger one because he gets a chance to read a few of his favourite books while we are here.”
Her energetic six-year-old, on the other hand, relishes the open spaces and opportunities to explore.
QNL hosts numerous activities for children and their families, such as interactive story time, and early literacy programmes. Additionally, programmes and activities for children with special needs are conducted by experts and specialists.
The Children’s Library has a collection of more than 150,000 books, as well as e-books, educational games and toys that develop children’s sensorimotor skills using fun activities.
“We’ve gone to the interactive story time activity a few times,” says Anneke.
“It’s great for me because we can read here together, pick out books to take home or they can explore the toys and games. We have good libraries in Sweden, but Qatar National Library is unique.”
The sounds of tiny footsteps and the delighted squeals of toddlers provide a life-affirming backdrop to a library that was always intended to be ‘noisy’, in order to encourage socialising in an informal setting.
While ordering his lunch, Ibrahim al-Jailani, who is currently mastering photography as his passion, is fascinated by the Library’s language-learning resources.
“It’s a relief to have such a wonderful library in our country,” says Ibrahim.
“I’ve improved my English speaking and writing greatly since the library opened. I visit the library every week to borrow English language learning books to use with the Mango Languages mobile application I’ve downloaded.”
By mid-afternoon, visitors are starting to arrive for ‘Doll Making with Riham al-Kayali’, just one of the more than 750 events that the Library has hosted over the past year. The session is fully booked, and the guests – girls ranging in age from 9 to 11 with their parents – mill excitedly around the auditorium.
Riham, from the Happy Minds initiative, reads from the children’s book My Beautiful Mother’s Veil, and participants create their own veiled dolls.
Rashida Ahmed is one of the attendees. “Honestly, I have been looking forward to spending these couple of hours with my daughter,” she says. “I have such a demanding schedule and the kids have so many school activities, that it’s rare to be together at an event we can both enjoy. At the same time, I’m glad that she is learning about our culture and understanding why we cover our hair with a scarf or the hijab. Today, QNL has given us a very special mother-daughter bonding time.”
By the time the event concludes, night is falling over Doha, and QNL has been transformed into a beacon of light, with its bookshelves illuminated in spectacular fashion.
Marwa has joined other visitors browsing the Heritage Library, which includes rare and valuable texts and manuscripts related to Arabic and Islamic civilisation, as well as historical maps and globes, scientific instruments and early photographs. The collection also contains writings by travellers who explored the Arabian Gulf region over the past centuries.
The word Iqra – which means “read” in Arabic – greets visitors at the front door of the Heritage Library, and transcriptions from the Holy Qur’an adorn the walls.
“It’s wonderful to be greeted with these words that are up there for everyone to see; it sets the tone for this space,” says Marwa, angling her camera to take a photo.
“I’m here on a short visit from Canada, and I was told QNL is a must-see. Obviously, growing up in Canada, my education has been from books, so I’m eager to experience and interact with the leaves from the Blue Holy Qur’an, for example, and some of the manuscripts that speak about my Muslim heritage.”
As the closing time of 8pm nears, there are still dozens of people throughout the library.
Bushra Amber is the last one to leave, and seems reluctant to go. A busy first-year PhD student in Islamic Finance and Economy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, she has classes four evenings a week and spends the rest of her time in the library.
“Luckily for me, the library has a variety of study areas in different sections, so I can switch my environment if my energy is falling or I need a change. It doesn’t always matter where I work because I’m often using the online resources, especially the Qatar Digital Library,” she reveals.
Marwa’s voice drops as she reveals: “The Open Lounge Terrace upstairs is a well-kept secret, by the way, and the view is absolutely remarkable, even at night.”
All members have free access to the Library’s vast online resources, which includes 380,000 e-books, periodicals, newspapers and other materials.
The Qatar Digital Library hosts more than 1.5mn pages of modern history and culture relating to the Gulf and the wider region, in Arabic and English. It is phenomenally popular all over the world, having received over 2.5mn views since its launch.
The community’s sense of shared ownership towards QNL shows in the footfall it receives, with well over a thousand visitors per day.
QNL touches many people’s lives, bringing together individuals from different backgrounds and paths of life, all sharing the vast range of resources in their own chosen ways – and all enjoying the opportunity to embrace a life of learning.
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