Living Knowledge blog

02 December 2014

Revealing Gulf history online

On 22 October the British Library, in collaboration with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library launched the Qatar Digital Library. With an initial 100,000 images from the British Library’s collections, this is an online, bi-lingual portal featuring archives, manuscripts, maps, visual arts and sound recordings around the themes of Gulf History and Arabic Science.

When we talk about a ‘digitisation project’ it’s easy to think about simply taking a picture with a camera or scanner. This is, of course, a crucial part of the project, but the reality is that the imaging is just one stage of many.

1. Content selection
Selecting content for inclusion in the Qatar Digital Library.

Delivering this bi-lingual, searchable, multidisciplinary resource has involved co-ordination across almost every different department in the British Library. From the library assistants who move the collections through the different project steps, to technical staff responsible for packaging and uploading the digital content, this is truly collaborative process.

Over 20 separate departments, involving well over 100 members of staff from the British Library have all contributed towards what you can finally see online, in addition to multiple staff and departments from both the Qatar National Library and the Qatar Foundation. You remove any one of these key areas and the whole project falls apart.

2. Retrieval
Retrieval of collection items from the basements at St Pancras.

Because the British Library does not receive specific funding for digitisation, we have always undertaken partnerships when aiming to digitise our collections.  Our aim is to bring some of our most important collections to a global audience and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership is a prime example of this.

Early discussion between the British Library and Qatar Foundations started in 2010 resulting in a Memorandum of Understanding and then a formal 10-year partnership agreement in June 2012. We started work on the first phase of the partnership on 1 July 2012, and it involves digitising a total of 500,000 pages and making them freely available.

5. Cataloguing
Cataloguing collection items included in the project, which makes the digitsed items freely available online via a bi-lingual portal.

The launch of the QDL has been fantastically successful. We’ve seen some excellent coverage right across the globe from the BBC and the Guardian to The National and the Times of Oman.  This is continuing with a series of weekly articles in the BBC magazine until the end of the 2014, as we continue to add a further 400,000 pages of content.  

There’s also been a huge effort to ensure we’re continually writing about the stories that we’re coming across in the collections. Well before the QDL went live, our content specialists have using social media to tell these fascinating stories - blogging principally from the library’s Asian and African Studies and Untold Lives blogs, as well as engaging with users on twitter (@BLQatar).

7. QualityAssurance
Assuring the quality of digitised images after scanning.

We’ve discovered some weird and wonderful stories about individuals, runaway princesses  and even cats. Over 60 essays are currently available and we’re adding more all the time. We’ll also be writing about different aspects of what the partnership is doing on this blog. From the complexities of digitisation archival content, to how it fits with our other digital offerings. 

By the end of this year, around half a million images will be available completely free to use and re-use via the QDL. Explore and enjoy! And then tell us about it @BLQatar.

Richard Davies

Business Planning Manager, Qatar Project



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