The trials and challenges of archiving Qatar’s history
Little is known about Qatar and its developmental history; its transition from a sea-faring and semi-migratory community to a country of advanced technology. That’s precisely what the team behind Qatar Unified Imaging Project (QUIP) is hoping to set right.
Tammi Moe, Lead principle investigator of QUIP describes it to be a two-stage project. “The first stage is mapping out primary source collections through an aggregated finding aid. This includes anything that brings us in touch with how something happened,” she says. “In the second phase the team will choose the most important sources to provide increased access to through digitisation; thus ensuring world-wide access to those sources and to the story behind them.”
Moe has previous experience in a similar project in her hometown, Denver, Colorado, and she wished to replicate it in Qatar. Although she started the groundwork for QUIP in 2004, only in 2008 did Moe succeed in formulating how to execute the project in Qatar. “Working as an archivist I began to realise how difficult collecting material in Qatar is, it is more challenging than I originally anticipated,” she adds.
The project kicked-off in 2010 when its proposal was awarded a million dollar fund under Qatar National Research Fund’s the National Priorities Research Programme.
“The original hypothesis centered on primary source material being more accessible, but I never knew the exact effort and time needed to document those materials until the actual fieldwork began” Moe explains.
“…there are still some key government collections that QUIP has failed to access after trying for years; a real limitation for the study.”
One of the first challenges was locating the primary sources outside Qatar; in countries that have close historical connections like UK, India, Denmark and France. To organise the dispersed materials, Moe has joined forces with Dr James Onley, Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at Exeter University, who is responsible for documentation in UK & India while Moe and Fahad Al-Obaidly, an oral historian and curator of heritage and culture, cover Qatar and Denmark.
Histories of a private people
But locating primary sources within Qatar itself is not by any means smoother. It is in fact tougher since many of these sources are housed in institutions lacking proper archiving systems or within private libraries which is a greater challenge for researchers to access. “To connect with the Qatari community is very hard, since Qataris tend to be private people; a reason why Al-Obaidly is a key member of the QUIP team. He is very aware of the local dialect, relationships between families, and is able to present QUIP better,” she adds.
“Qataris showed great interest in the project but the trick is to build the trust with them so they can share all their private pictures and materials. Nationals enjoy the process of sharing their memories as well as cherish the fact that their very own collections can be digitised part of Qatar’s history,” says Al Obaidly.
“To connect with the Qatari community is very hard, since Qataris tend to be private people…”
The only issue according to Moe is that Qataris themselves don’t realise the importance of their home collections since they take their daily life events for granted. Sometimes a family can throw some old pictures or lose some picture collection when they move houses not knowing the value in these lost captured memories. “It really entails a lot of time and effort to educate someone about having a picture collection that might highlight a certain phase of Qatar history,” she explains.
Will some of it be lost?
A lot of the material gathered locally is intangible & there are even some phases to which no local documentation exists. Which is why Al Obaidly along with Mohammed Al Balushi of the Heritage Department at the Ministry of Culture, Arts & Heritage, are including oral histories in their research findings, where they delve into local memories to gain more insights. Since the older generations speak different dialects the researchers seeks help from the local community for translation. QUIP is building a thesaurus of the old Qatari terminology to be used when naming the collected cultural materials.
As for institutions that showed interest in QUIP, the team has helped them build their own archiving systems because the archiving standards in Qatari’s institutions do not meet the international standards.
Despite the backing from the local community and many institutions, there are still some key government collections that QUIP has failed to access after trying for years; a real limitation for the study and a challenge for any researcher who wishes to work in the Gulf. It means that some parts of history can go missing or uncovered. “This access needs to be addressed as QUIP is a perfect model implement a national archive,” Moe highlights.
Featured Image: From QUIP archives, attributed to Salwa Al Janahi