Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

28 May 2021

Making two million images freely available online

Ten years ago the British Library and the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development started exploring possible areas of collaboration. For some time the British Library had been working on an international engagement strategy to make our collections more accessible in partnership with other organisations.

Fast forward to 2021, and our partnership with the Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library has gone from strength to strength, this week hitting the major milestone of making our two millionth image freely available online via the Qatar Digital Library.

Under the British Library’s Living Knowledge strategy we have sought new partnerships and collaborations, particularly when it comes to digitisation and digital scholarship.  Our aim is to open up the collections to a global audience and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership is a prime example of this endeavour.


Camera view during photogrammetry creation of Astrolabe on QDL by Jordi Clopes-Masjuan.

Two million images is a nice round number, but as soon as you stop to consider how much work it is to make available such a vast amount of content, it is even more impressive - even by national library standards, it is a lot of content.

Thousands of files, manuscripts and maps have been brought up from the Library’s basements through dozens of different workflow stages in order to make them available online. Every item is checked by conservators, catalogued by archivists and content specialists, and returned by our Library Assistants. Every one of the two million pages has been foliated, copyright cleared, scanned or photographed, quality checked, processed and uploaded. A new enhanced catalogue record for every item is created and then translated into Arabic, so that the QDL is a truly bilingual resource, transforming access to these collections for researchers in the Gulf, and indeed for users around the world.


A collection item undergoing conservation treatment, with information added as part of a Hack Day (Photo: Imaging Services)

A key part of the online resource is not only making high-quality images and catalogues available, but contextualising the collections in an engaging way. Over the past year during several lockdowns the partnership team have been unable to work on the collections directly as they normally would, however, they have pivoted to working remotely, in many cases working creatively to open up and highlight the fascinating collections that we continue to make available.


Screenshot of the Bitsy Game created by Ellis Meade of the Qatar National Library

Colleagues have produced new and innovative ways into the collections through ‘hack days’, including making games and mosaics, as well as adding to the over 170 Expert Articles that are available. These pieces cover topics from introductory articles on Arabic Manuscripts at the British Library to Pivotal Moment in Qatar’s History through the collections.


Mosaic of the Qatar Digital Library homepage by Laura Parsons

Please do explore this amazing resource, and tell us about it through our Twitter feed: @BLQatar.


Richard Davies

Head of Collection Programmes and the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership