British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme

In October 2014, the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launched the Qatar Digital Library (QDL), an online bilingual portal that provides free access to material from the British Library’s collections.

The portal displays content related to the history and culture of the Gulf and its surroundings, as well as the Library’s Arabic Scientific Manuscripts. Among the collections that we are working on are: the India Office Records on Gulf History (Agencies and Residencies), personal papers, maps, photographs, and manuscripts. The portal is fully bilingual, supporting study in both Arabic and English. At the moment, there are almost one and a half million images of British Library material on the portal, comprising over 14,000 records and over 136 manuscripts, with more content being uploaded every week. In addition, the Digital Library hosts articles from our experts, developed by the British Library team to help contextualise the collections. There are currently over 140 published articles, with more to come.

Digitising and publishing the documents on the QDL requires the work of a wide range of specialists. We are an interdisciplinary team, made up of more than forty professionals, including computer scientists, photographers, conservators, curators, archivists, administrators, translators, and specialist historians. Together we are working to give users of the portal a comparable experience to seeing the original documents in person.

The most obvious and important benefit of digitisation is the increased visibility and access to the collections. Users no longer have to be physically present in the Library’s reading rooms in London, but can now view these records from any corner of the globe, on a number of different devices. Since the portal has been active, users have been accessing the site from all around the world, with the top five countries being the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, and the United Kingdom.

Alongside the digital images, each file is published with a short descriptive catalogue record, created by our team of experts. Cataloguing of this kind allows the Library to better understand and document the nature of the collections themselves, improving its own records and highlighting the importance of the material.

When providing free open access to information online, issues surrounding copyright and data protection must be considered.  On the programme we have a dedicated Rights Clearance team, and the programme works with the Library’s Information Compliance Officer to ensure that we are compliant with current legislation and British Library policy. By firstly determining whether the catalogued material is still within copyright or not, our Rights Clearance team then conduct copyright ownership research into the collection items selected for digitisation, tracing and contacting Rights Holders where possible, such as individuals, companies, publishers, estates and other relevant bodies, working to ensure the correct usage terms are displayed on the portal.

Moreover, there are further challenges on a digitisation project such as this. There can be challenges in scoping the material: its condition, size, the style of handwriting, and the languages in which it is written may all make a given file difficult to read. These issues can in turn have knock-on effects on the time needed for conservation, cataloguing, and digitisation. Assessing the time needed for an item to makes its way from the BL’s secure storage onto the portal is no easy task, and requires clear coordination across all teams. To facilitate this, a workflow with three separate streams has been developed, and is now managed through the use of Microsoft SharePoint. Each team also maintains thorough documentation and guidelines to help ensure the consistency of its work.

We are highly aware of the importance of communicating our work to make sure it reaches new audiences. Among our outreach activities, we promote the portal online through social media and in person through talks and tours of the programme. Many of our specialists also offer presentations at academic and archival conferences, participate in seminars, and write articles and blogs for wider publication. The response of users of the portal is overwhelmingly positive: many researchers and students are using this resource, not only in the UK, but also in the United States and across the Gulf region, and the increased access to this material is allowing for studies of a broader and more comprehensive nature than was previously possible.

Thanks to this project, important historical material from the BL’s collections, some of which had not previously been fully catalogued or studied in depth, is now being disseminated and made available to the general public. The Partnership has just agreed a further three years for this project, until the end of 2021, during which time we plan to make even more material available. We hope our efforts will prove useful to all who access the portal.

For more information please visit Qatar Digital Library and our web in British Library.

This article was originally published in ARC Magazine, a publication of the Archive & Records Association of the UK & Ireland, no. 349, September 2018.

Image: Kitāb na‘t al-ḥayawān كتاب نعت الحيوان [‎208v] (427/534), British Library: Oriental Manuscripts, Or 2784