Ayub Khan, IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee member, shares his impressions of the new Qatar National Library
Qatar and its Library
I was privileged to attend the official opening of the new Qatar National Library (QNL), on April 16 2018, as President of CILIP, the UK’s Library and Information Association. I packed my chain of office, as befitted the occasion. The medal set off airport alarms at both ends of a long journey and drew puzzled looks from security. The opening ceremony, and the chance to explore a brand new world-class national library made the long flight and the security checks well worth it.
Qatar is one of the world’s wealthiest countries and spared no expense on its national library, which is part of a new Education City development in Doha. The combined public, university and national library is thought to have cost at least $300 million. Qatar is a very hot country and the diamond-shaped building features a corrugated glass facade and a reflective aluminium ceiling designed to diffuse the bright sunlight, while a sunken patio filters light into the lower levels and staff offices. Air conditioning keeps the temperature comfortable.
The Design Focus
According to Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed Seattle Central Library, QNL’s exterior shape is based on a folded sheet of paper. Whilst the emerging structure’s external characteristics were hard to conceal, details of the interior design were kept secret until the building opened last year. The internal space is organized around three main aisles connected by column-free bridges that provide study spaces, reading rooms, exhibition areas and an auditorium that can be separated by a retractable screen.
The aisles radiate from a triangular central area which has been compared to a public square. It constitutes a valuable social space and has the capacity to host a wide range of events. With comfortable seating and tables, a meeting place is provided at the heart of the building.
Koolhaas set out to create “a monument to the enduring value of the book” and his tiered shelving design makes each book in the collection visible. The bookshelves, which are made of the same white marble as the floor, stretch out in terraces across the 138-metre-long library.
Contemporary architectural design confidently and seamlessly blends the traditional and ultra-modern. QNL houses more than a million books and makes another five hundred thousand titles available electronically. The library is designed to appeal to all generations and interests and to take users of all ages on a journey of discovery.
The Feel of the Building
The 42,000 square metre library is massive. It is hard to convey in words just how huge it feels inside. The basic building materials are stone, steel and wood which are used to create a vast and open space that looks stunning. “The interior is so large it’s on an almost urban scale,” said Koolhaas. “It could contain an entire population, and also an entire population of books.”
QNL can accommodate thousands of visitors – who move around the different levels on a wheelchair-friendly sloped elevator. As well as artificial lighting and air conditioning, the library has a system which returns books automatically to the section where they belong.
The subterranean Heritage Library, visible from the main library above, is reminiscent of an archaeological excavation. It houses many rare and important items of international significance relating to Arabic and Islamic culture. Preserving the past for Qatar and the world is a key function for QNL. A state-of-the-art conservation suite includes the IFLA Preservation and Conservation Centre for the Arab Countries and the Middle East.
The Opening Ceremony
His Highness the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani placed the library’s millionth book on the shelf, Al-Bukhari’s Abridged Collection of Authentic Hadith, as part of the grand formal opening ceremony. Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, had shelved the Library’s first book, a Qur’an manuscript, back in December 2016.
The new Library opened in November 2017. Since that date, it has welcomed 161,000 visitors, registered 51,000 new members, and lent more than 300,000 books with well over half from the children and young people’s sections. High-ranking guests attending the official opening included members of royal families, ambassadors and other VIPs, from more than fifty countries. IFLA President Elect Christine Mackenzie was among the guests.
Smart Cities and Smart Libraries
QNL reflects Qatar’s determination to become a knowledge economy no longer defined by dependence on natural resources. It is both a national and an international institution designed as a model library for a new age where people from all nationalities and backgrounds can come together to contemplate, create and interact.
A new wave of ultra-modern libraries is being built around the world and Qatar is a prime example. Smart cities demand smart libraries, particularly with big data and heightened awareness of environmental issues. Visual impact and bold architecture make strong statements, affirming commitment to culture and learning. A key internal design principle, so evident at QNL, is making space that is convenient to access and use, and where people can freely interact. Good design influences behaviour. As former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”
Photographs kindly supplied and approved for use by the Qatar National Library.
IFLA Library Buildings and Equipment Section Standing Committee member Ayub Khan is Head of Libraries and Face to Face Services for Warwickshire County Council in England. He is Digital Lead for the Society of Chief Librarians and President of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). In 2013 he was awarded an MBE for his services to libraries. He has written articles and publications on library design and theory, including a book: Better by design and regularly speaks to audiences in the UK and abroad. He co-authored the section on library and information centres in the Metric Handbook. firstname.lastname@example.org
 Khan, Ayub (2008) Better by design: an introduction to planning and designing a new library building. (London: Facet Publishing)
 Buxton, Pamela (2015) Metric handbook: planning & design data. 5th ed. (London: Routledge)