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Foreword: Qatar National Library

Published onOct 29, 2019
Foreword: Qatar National Library

Qatar National Library is very happy to be involved in this Book Sprint initiative, and this preface is a modest contribution to the work undertaken by Milena Dobreva and Georgios Papaioannou from UCL Qatar and Mahendra Mahey from the British Library (BL) who manages BL Labs to organise this event in Doha. It also needs to be put in the context of having 16 participants locked up in a room in a Doha hotel for five days and countless hours to produce a book on the notion and reality of Innovation Labs in libraries worldwide. This preface was written as the group diligently and courageously tackled the mission that they had taken upon themselves to accomplish.

The setting up of the Innovation Labs at Qatar National Library is in a way very similar to the work of the Book Sprint group this week in Doha: starting from a blank canvas. The planning of the Qatar National Library started with a clean slate, with no preconceived notions of what a library should be. As a new 21st century library in the Digital Age, the national library needed to be not only an institution that collects and preserves Qatar’s documentary heritage but also to provide Qatar’s residents with a public library that provides resources and activities that foster discovery, creativity and learning. In addition, it also had to serve as a research library, to make available and promote the relevant documentary resources on the history and culture of Qatar and the Gulf region.

This spirit of a reimagined national library was taken to task by the architect, Rem Koolhaas, who created an innovative and creative use of space to meet the needs of all patrons — children and young adults, students, researchers and academics, visually impaired people, and users with disabilities. By embedding technology throughout its physical architecture, services and programmes, and by opening the building’s space for innovative and creative activity, the Library changed the way the space is used and is effectively changing the very nature of patrons’ library experience. The Library has promoted itself as a community space for Qatar’s residents, with its open main floor evoking an urban plaza. It creates an environment of leisure, one in which patrons can wander around, browse the printed collections arranged in different levels around the plaza area, have coffee at the cafe or explore an interactive digital exhibition.

By creating attractive spaces for events and social interaction, the Library has achieved its goal of attracting more than 1.5 million visitors since its opening in November 2017. It also managed in two years since to organise an average of 100 monthly programmes using a variety of venues, tailored to the needs of each event. A case in point is the huge 'Special events' area, which can be used for lectures, panels, films and free monthly concerts by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. While the sound of music fills the Library, students and researchers carry out their work undisturbed in traditional individual and group study areas.

Technology was also seamlessly incorporated into the building to subtly enhance the visitor experience. An automatic book return system is built into the shelves themselves, so books are returned faster to the appropriate shelving areas, improving both the availability of items and the shelving staff’s work experience. Digital media walls are used for games, maps, programme information and digital exhibitions. These digital exhibitions on the media walls create an interactive opportunity for patrons that allows for a creative and more immersive discovery experience.

One growing trend in the 21st century is the gradual shift by libraries to accommodate the use of technology to help their users experiment, create and discover. Over the last 10 years, many libraries have embraced the notion of creating learning technology Labs as spaces for collaborative and creative applied learning. This shift toward facilitating 'learning by doing' in libraries has opened up new possibilities for libraries to engage with students and researchers in particular. The creation of creative tech Labs, called Innovation Stations, at the Library was inspired by the culture of technical innovation in the development of the Library.

The QNL concept of an Innovation / GLAM Lab differs from the book’s definition where the focus is on experimenting with / curating digital collections and data. The Library is not yet at this stage of its development for various reasons but the experience of attracting patrons to take part in innovative activities plays an important role of building a community interested to explore further innovation possibilities when they will be offered. The Library is still in the process of building its digital collections, through partnership projects, such as the one with the British Library and by digitising its own historical collections. Exploiting these digital collections will require new expertise in curation and data analysis and should be integrated in a proper strategic approach. Experience in working with other institutions will certainly lead to creating a new perspective in expanding the digital Innovation Lab. QNL is very much looking forward to the book which should provide further guidance in setting up a GLAM Lab.

The concept of the Innovation Stations was developed with the view of having a space in the Library to foster creativity, collaboration and engagement, in line with Qatar Foundation’s (QF) mission to be a 'place known for creativity, unlocking human potential and a place where knowledge will be fostered and shared'. The purpose was to create opportunities for people to come to the Library to learn, discuss, discover, test and create together. This offers a new type of literacy in Qatar, where our patrons can implement their ideas and learn about new technologies. This makerspace approach supports learning in an informal, play-focused environment that aims at cultivating an interest in science, technology and design.

The Innovation Stations consist of four rooms:

  • Station 1 is a computer/digital production room for editing and developing digital and physical projects, and creating 3-dimensional (3D) designs.

  • Station 2 is a music production room with a variety of musical instruments and recording equipment.

  • Station 3 is a 3D printing and scanning space, including DIY electronics and tools such as virtual reality accessories and DIY equipment for sewing and embroidery.

  • Station 4 is a videography / photography studio for shooting and editing videos and photos with the help of a green screen. The stations are set up to encourage patrons to use more than one studio to conceive, develop and produce creative work. For instance, students can use the computer room to design an object, which they will reproduce using the 3D printer and photograph using the photography studio.

A musician may record an original song, then go down the hall and create an accompanying music video. These stations are supported by the Library’s Outreach and Community Engagement staff, who guide users and offer courses in 3D printing, videography / photography (Photoshop, video editing, green screen), virtual reality, Makey Makey for Kids, and basic coding. To support the use of the stations, our staff organised 173 workshops and programmes over the last 20 months. The Innovation Stations also support programmes organised by the Research and Learning Department, as well as the Children’s and Young Adults’ Library.

The Innovation Station concept and the creation of the four stations have been a great success since the opening of the Library. The education and research communities in Doha have taken advantage of the Innovation Stations to support their programmes. Individuals have also booked the Stations to further develop their knowledge, talent and skills, and develop their own projects and ideas. Measured by the number of visits, the Stations have been a resounding success. Between January 2018 and August 2019 (20 months), there were 1,784 bookings (reservations) for the music and photography stations, and 49,372 walk-ins across all four Stations during that time. We have also received highly satisfactory feedback from our patrons that confirms our first hand impressions of the use and appreciation of our services.

Of course, measuring creativity is an elusive art, and we have yet to truly understand the value that we have created with these stations. For instance, many of our users are schools that organise sessions at the library to put knowledge and ideas into practice. We know from the projects that we have witnessed that there is value created by the Innovation Stations, but we currently lack a tangible way of measuring it. To get a true picture of their impact, we need to create evaluation tools to measure how the Library has contributed to the learning process and outcomes. What is at stake is the notion of purpose. Is it enough to make the Innovation Stations available and be satisfied that they are used? Or should we find out how we are impacting our learning community and individuals? Have we helped shape young lives by introducing them to new experiences and possibilities? Will learning about 3D printing spark an interest in engineering? Have we given the next generation the tools to follow their dreams and become music producers, sound engineers and film directors?

In its first two years, Qatar National Library has demonstrated that the vision of a reimagined national library with its focus on its patrons’ learning experience has proved to be the right approach. The growing number of visitors and registered members is a key indicator of the attractiveness of the Library by a broad segment of Qatar’s population. The last two years have given us the confidence that our fundamental services and collections are being developed according to our needs and expectations. The challenges are twofold. First, how can we assure the sustainability of the quality and quantity of services and activities provided? Second, how can we progress to another level in expanding our existing services and providing new ones? The Library is still in the so-called 'honeymoon' phase — there is still a high level of motivation and engagement from our staff and a sense of novelty with our public. But there may be an eventual danger of 'events planning fatigue' when our staff loses motivation (as déjà vu sets in) and it becomes more difficult to continue to develop new and creative programmes.

In the case of the Innovation Stations, the challenge, of course, will be to maintain and manage the high level of use and services currently provided by our staff. There are other issues that will need consideration. There are already some indications that the capacity of some of our stations is too small. For instance, the 3D printing station can only accommodate up to eight people, and its ceiling is too low to allow for full functionality. As we expand our technological services — for example, robotics support and training — we may need to create new Innovation Station spaces in other parts of the Library. Another challenge is to expand our community engagement in the use of Innovation Stations. There is strong engagement from schools and frequent patrons, but we still need to address how effective we have been at reaching out to other communities, such as Qatari nationals, underprivileged users or older generations. And lastly, we must constantly be looking for ways to improve our ability to correctly measure the impact the Innovation Stations and our engagement have had on our patrons’ learning, creativity and innovation.

The Book Sprint initiative, co-funded by UCL Qatar, Qatar University Library, The British Library and the Library of Congress of the USA, which took place in Doha, is a welcome contribution to the discussion of Innovation Labs in libraries. We must remember that Innovation Labs in libraries is a fairly recent concept and only put in place in libraries in the last 10 years or so. Innovation Stations at the Qatar National Library are still evolving and it is expected that new services will need to be added in the next few years in response to new patron needs and expectations. Contributions such as the Doha Book Sprint initiative are necessary to encourage the expansion of such services in the core activities of libraries, and more importantly, to expand the Innovation Labs concept to include new technologies and Labs.

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