Dec 08, 2020 by QNL
Qatar National Library plays an increasingly important role in preserving heritage for future generations, with the process of digitization leading from the front
Qatar National Library is taking a leading role in preserving the culture and history of Qatar, the Gulf, and the Arab and Islamic worlds. To fulfil this important mission, the Library’s facilities are equipped with the resources, technology and infrastructure to provide the highest quality digitization of heritage items, preserving them and making them accessible to researchers for generations to come, while also making them freely available to the entire world.
Digitization describes a process where physical materials are converted into digital versions which can be understood and stored by computers. The Library has, at the time of writing, digitized over 10 million pages from various collections including 5 million Arabic pages from Qatar National Library’s Heritage Collection and nearly 2.8 million pages from the Arabic Collection of New York University.
Digital conversion of materials has advanced rapidly in the past few years, with Qatar National Library at the forefront of this process in the Middle East and on the world stage. The Library digitizes information via Optical Character Recognition (OCR), the technical practice of extracting text from images. The process itself is becoming popular in terms of usage and research, as it spans multiple areas of science, including image processing, machine learning, information retrieval and artificial intelligence.
Hany Abdellatif, Head of Digitization Services at Qatar National Library, is responsible for overseeing the Library’s huge digitization efforts:
“Using OCR images brings the documents to life and allows users to discover every bit of information stored within. At the Library, we have mastered multiple techniques and algorithms to capture text; these methods include both human and automated process.”
The marriage of human interaction with technological advances, he says, is vital to ensuring the success of the process:
“We have built an accurate system which streamlines our work, and harmonizes the roles and responsibilities between humans and machines to reach the maximum quality of the extracted text. With the proper tools and algorithms, the Library’s digitization team has built a system which covers 99% of printed Arabic text based on shape, quality and size. It’s a process which has taken some time to master, but we now have a system that is accurate and reliable.”
The Library’s digitization technicians scan a wide variety of heritage items, including rare manuscripts, books, maps, newspapers, magazines, photos and microfilms. Technicians then go through each individual item to ensure its quality is controlled, performing tasks such as colour curve correction, editing resolution settings, image compression and noise removal.
Nasser Al-Ansari, Director of IT Operations and Infrastructure at Qatar National Library says the Library’s digitization processes tie in with its overall mission to preserve Islamic history and culture, and technological advances are making this vision become reality.
“The Library is committed to the preservation of heritage items not only in our region, but across the entire Islamic world. We have come a long way in building a reliable process to digitize content for the benefit of spreading rich Arabic knowledge, and we are committed to working harder to fulfil that goal. Having access to the latest technology at the Library enables us to realise this ambition.”
In addition to ongoing efforts to digitize the Library’s collections of rare books, manuscripts, maps and photographs, the Library’s Digitization Center works on digitization projects with other heritage collections in Qatar and international institutions. These include projects at New York University (NYU) of more than 8,000 Arabic books in NYU library collections, which will also be available on Qatar National Library’s online platforms.
Nasser Al-Ansari adds: “Our team’s goals are numerous; we want to increase and enhance the visibility, accessibility and usability of the Library’s collections, and those of other organizations, including unique and rare materials that meet research and educational needs. We also want to provide access to collections at the Library which can no longer be physically available due to their fragile condition.”
Preservation has developed into a critically important part of managing Qatar National Library’s most precious assets—its collection. Digitization is a key cog in this process, and the Library’s digitization technicians are acutely aware of the importance of their role.
Hany Abdellatif says: “We also hope to encourage the creation of digital Arabic content, while protecting the original materials by reducing frequent handling during reference use, and maintain important Arab and Islamic heritage and historical materials, preserving our history for many years to come.”
Nasser Al-Ansari also sees digitization as complimenting other preservation and conservation services:
“Digitization is part of a package of long-term investment for our heritage items, and an important section of our preservation and conservation services. Unlike microfilm, digital images don’t help to preserve the original; digitization assists us by reducing physical wear and tear on the original. It’s therefore vital that we see digitization not as replacement for a proper preservation program, based on conservation treatments or improved storage conditions, but as part of this holistic process of conservation of our treasures.”
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