BOOK KEEPERS

Qatar 2020 | EDUCATION & RESEARCH | INTERVIEW

Qatar National Library is providing a public place for people to interact that did not exist before, hosting concerts, events, and panels for the Qatari community.

Sohair Wastawy
BIOGRAPHY

Sohair Wastawy was appointed the executive director of Qatar National Library in 2016. Before arriving in Qatar, she was the dean of libraries at Florida Institute of Technology in the US. She also served as the dean of the University Libraries at Illinois State University, the chief librarian of the new Library of Alexandria, and the dean of libraries at Illinois Institute of Technology. She also worked as a professor and serves as member of professional association boards. She is the recipient of many awards and honors including a Fulbright scholarship. Wastawy received her MLS in library and information science from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate in library and information management from Simmons College, US.

What lead to the creation of the Qatar National Library?
While Education City has been truly revolutionary in Qatar's educational landscape, with international universities opening campuses, they were isolated in resources. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser's vision evolved from a university library to a national library also serving the public. Qatar's population is young: 40% is below 18, and a significant number of these children and young adults have not been raised with access to a public library. Thus, there is a specific focus on attracting children and young adults, along with their parents. In 2019, we had more than 900 different programs, from science lectures to free, monthly Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra concerts. It is a social center for the entire community.

What has been the reaction of Qataris to the library?
Over 1.7 million books have been borrowed, so clearly there is enthusiasm. We cannot say exactly how we have impacted peoples' lives after such a short time; the changes we are bringing about are too big to happen right away. But on any afternoon, you can see how many people take advantage of the space. People come here after work and school to read, study, or attend an event. Recently, we had 3,000 people in the building and not a single empty seat.

What challenges did you face the first year?
The challenge is to continuously offer new programs that keep people interested and coming back. We are constantly analyzing which events, resources, and subjects are the most popular, so we can ensure we have the latest materials and can serve all our members. For example, diet and healthy living are popular subjects now, so we have increased our selection of healthy cookbooks and held a workshop on healthy recipes. We are here to offer what society needs and seeks to learn. We have made the library a friendly place and will continue to work on being a learning place for everyone. We are trying to build bridges, not just between Qatar and the world, but within Qatar, between our diverse populations. We strive to be a place where people from all backgrounds can learn from one another in a respectful, welcoming environment.

What new technological innovations would you like to implement?
The library has technology baked into every corner. Users can access all types of databases, download e-books, and stream music from anywhere around the world. It is not just about the technology we have, but how we use it. We have digitized 7 million pages of materials, the majority of which are Arabic books. Arabic content is still limited on the web, and much of what there is not searchable. We not only digitize a page, but perform optical character recognition so that every word of the text becomes searchable. Not only are we increasing the amount of content, but we are also increasing people's ability to find content they couldn't find before. We have been digitizing books from our Heritage Library collection, as well as items from New York University's Arabic collection.

What is your outlook for the library in the upcoming year?
I anticipate more usage and a better understanding of the library's value to society by Qataris. Qatar has opened several cultural organizations, such as the library and the National Museum of Qatar, to serve as institutions that preserve the past and help us learn about it. We also have the Qatar Digital Library, which holds digitized materials about Qatar and the Gulf from other international institutions. This is another way we are providing information to our members about the country and its place in the world, as well as supporting researchers from all over. This helps the community's ability to learn about its past and present and build a future with education as its foundation.