Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Rev. Columba Stewart on Digitally Preserving Archives

The Rev. Columba Stewart, the executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's University (in Collegeville, Minnesota), has a piece called "Technology can Preserve World History" (available here) in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  It begins:
Walter M. Miller Jr.'s 1960 novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" imagined a world hundreds of years in the future in which an order of Catholic monks devotes itself to recovering the fragments of human literary culture left after nuclear war. As we read about the destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu, home of some of the most important libraries of the Muslim world, track the progress of war and ethnic violence across the Middle East, and contemplate a nuclear-armed Iran, Miller's novel seems eerily prophetic.
Manuscripts -- handwritten books and ancient archival records -- are especially vulnerable in such conflicts. Unlike printed books, each manuscript is unique and irreplaceable. Once lost, there is no way to recover what it contained. Each manuscript has a story about who created it, who read it, who cared for it. Each of those people leaves a mark: the text itself, written by hand; the scribe's note of when and where it was copied; the reader's notes; the stamps or seals of the libraries or individuals who cared for it.
Rev. Stewart goes on to describe the efforts of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library to digitally preserve endangered manuscripts abroad:
I entered the monastery in Collegeville in 1981, and since 2003 have been directing the manuscript preservation project. We have been largely focused on the Middle East, Turkey and India, helping threatened communities to digitize their manuscript heritage just in case. Among the treasures now safely in digital form are all of the surviving Armenian and Syriac manuscripts held by churches in Turkey, some as old as the seventh and eighth centuries. In Aleppo, an Iraqi refugee from Mosul photographed the manuscripts brought from Urfa/Edessa in 1923, and local teams were trained to photograph Syriac, Arabic and Armenian manuscripts in the city that is now facing destruction. Among the manuscripts from Urfa is the only complete copy of a 12th-century account of the Crusades as witnessed by the Christians of the Middle East. In Iraq, we have worked with a team of young Christians, many of them refugees, who have tracked down thousands of important manuscripts and made them available digitally to researchers throughout the world. Recent projects in Jerusalem have digitized some of the extraordinary manuscript collections held by Christian and Muslim communities in the Old City, one of the most sensitive and volatile locations on the planet.