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An Unabashed Tribute To Books In A Relentlessly Digital Age

OMA’s new library in Qatar celebrates the printed word.

In a world full of blaring screens and pinging notifications, respite can still be found in a very old-fashioned, centuries-old object: the book.

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The new OMA-designed Qatar National Library, which opened in Doha earlier this week, celebrates its collection of more than a million books by incorporating them into the infrastructure of the building. Far from shoving the books in the back to focus on shiny new computers–another vital element of the 21st century library–the library recognizes that books are part of its foundation. The shelves are made from the same white marble as the building’s floors, and do more than just display: They also incorporate lighting, ventilation, and a book return system.

[Photo: Iwan Baan/courtesy OMA]

In the stacks, books are housed in three rows of shelves that are arranged almost like stadium-style seating–allowing you to take in the sheer number of books in a glance (and making the library very Instagram friendly). “We designed the space so you can see all the books in a panorama,” OMA’s co-founder and principal architect Rem Koolhaas said in a statement. “You emerge immediately surrounded by literally every book–all physically present, visible, and accessible, without any particular effort.”

[Photo: Iwan Baan/courtesy OMA]

In contrast to the panoramic element of the design, the library’s heritage collection–composed of its oldest, most valuable volumes and scripts, many of which relate to Arab-Islamic history–is sunken into the floor. Unlike the rest of the building’s white marble interior, this section is clad in beige travertine. Visiting that collection must feel like going back in time as you sink below the library floor. The overall design also allows visitors to access this collection directly using a separate entrance. Visitors can also look into the sunken area via the wide walkways above it, which almost look like floating islands. Similar to OMA’s Seattle Public Library, the architects balance social space with cozier reading space beautifully within a single, large room.

In a time when the library occupies an increasingly important role in civil society as a storing house of knowledge that exists outside the effervescent, alternative fact-riddled internet, their status remains in flux. In the U.S., they’re a target of the culture wars. But over in Qatar, OMA’s design brings the library back to its roots as a true testament to books. After all, they are the original interface for information–and the foundation for culture and civilization itself.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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