World’s richest country showcases ancient books in new library

Qatar National Library's permanent exhibition at its Heritage Library. — Image courtesy of
Qatar National Library's permanent exhibition at its Heritage Library. — Image courtesy of

DOHA, April 25 — Thousand year-old books have settled in the most futuristic of homes, gently cooled and shielded from the sun in an underground chamber of Qatar’s National Library.

Designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Rem Koolhaas, the library was opened by Qatar’s emir and his parents, who started the project in 2012. The family rules the world’s richest people, and that wealth has its perks.

The Heritage Collection, six metres below the main floor, includes maps and letters tracing the history of Qatar, from the first mention of Catara by a second century Greco-Roman cartographer to documents demarcating its modern borders.

Other treasures are from another era: A page from one of the first copies of the Quran from the 9th or 10th century, and the medical and mechanical engineering books of Arab and Persian scholars who carried knowledge forward during the Dark Ages from 500 to 1000 AD.

An open, triangular space serves as the library’s focal point. Shelves are made of the same white marble as the floors, and rise along the edges of the building. Computer stations, interactive displays, and other digital devices are intended to make it less of a museum and more functional for the community.

A day after the opening last week, both Qataris and foreigners were wandering the space, which is part of Qatar’s Education City, a complex of US university branches such as Georgetown, Cornell and Northwestern.

In keeping with the academic spirit, no books and information will be considered taboo or forbidden, Sohair Wastawy, the library’s executive director, said in an interview.

“It’s an open platform for learning,” she said. “Hiding information, not learning about others, that doesn’t help anybody.” — Qatar National Library/Bloomberg

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