THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

10 May 2018

Endangered Urdu Periodicals

This blog post has been written by Mr Nasir Javaid, grant holder for EAP839. The material has just been submitted to the EAP Office and it will be online later in the year.

EAP839 produced digital images of rare Urdu periodicals from the 19th to the first half of the 20th century in order to preserve and make them available to researchers. During this period the project team has successfully produced 3,832 issues. Urdu journals played a significant role in the development of Urdu literature, especially fiction, religion, history, poetry and culture of the South Asian region as a whole, particularly in Pakistan and India. If someone wants to write on the development of fiction or religious literature, they should refer back to these rare periodicals. Literature on Urdu criticism also flourished through these periodicals. Numerous books that were published later also drew content from these periodicals. Some of the best novels available in Urdu were first published in parts in Urdu journals. These periodicals also remained the primary source of advertisements for all major trade brands of that time. A large number of prominent writers and society figures gained popularity through these periodicals.

EAP839_Humayun_May_1935_v27_no5

Humayn, May 1935

EAP839_Biswin_sadi_August_1951_v15_no8

Baby Powder advertisement, August 1951

Unfortunately, the highly acidic paper used has made this literature highly vulnerable. It is rare to find complete runs of even the most important Urdu periodicals. Some of the publications have vanished; others are on the verge of extinction. Through digitisation and online presentation it becomes possible to access the publications, overcoming obstacles of location.

EAP839_Taj_October-November_1924_v2_no1-2

Taj, October - November 1924

Urdu language, now spoken by more than 60 million people worldwide, was the lingua franca of 19th century northern India. It was a common medium of mainstream communication when mass printing culture began. It was also the primary South Asian language used by colonial rulers for administrative purposes during the early British Raj. Previously it was very difficult for researchers to find full runs of the first Urdu periodicals. Further, tensions between Pakistan and India have made it very difficult for scholars to complete their research in topics requiring materials published across the national borders.  Making the rare Urdu periodicals accessible online will help improve scholarship on both sides of the border. During this project we have received many requests for copies of these digitised journals from India. The Endangered Archives Programme is making a major contribution towards the preservation of cultural heritage in countries, such as Pakistan, where the governmental support of such initiatives is not a priority.

EAP839_Humayun_January_1945_v47_no1

Humayun, January 1945

This project has enabled staff in Pakistan to develop professionally and to attain levels of performance in the field of technology never before attained within a Pakistani library. Project staff have not only learned to preserve and digitise, but also have become expert in the listing and cataloguing of periodicals. It was our fortune that while scanning these journals we had a chance to see and learn a lot of interesting articles and advertisements on different aspects of social life. Through this project the Mushfiq Khwaja Trust for the Advancement of Knowledge and Culture has developed exceptionally strong and close working relationships with the contributing institution in Pakistan and shared knowledge and skills with those partners.

EAP839_Ismat_May_1928_v40_no5_001 - Copy

Ismat, May 1928

The Urdu literary journals have a long publication history some of these have been published continuously for more than a hundred years. It was not an easy task to locate the issues, even family members of the founder, editor and publishers of these journals have only limited numbers. When we digitised these journals they were incredibly pleased that we have preserved the legacy of their ancestors. On occasion, when they need an article they would contact us and also referred other people to us.

EAP839_Avadh_Punch_1886_

Political cartoon, Avadh Punch 1886

The Mushfiq Khwaja Library and Research Centre was also the archival partner on EAP566 resulting in 8635 issues of rare Urdu journals with total number of 615000 images having been digitised. No other institution in South Asia has extensively worked to preserve Urdu journals to this extent.

17 April 2018

Remote Capture: Digitising Documentary Heritage in Challenging Locations

Remote Capture: Digitising Documentary Heritage in Challenging Locations is a practical guide for those about to embark on a digitisation project and it has just become available online. It is aimed at those who are planning to apply to EAP for future funding, but hopefully the advice will have wider appeal for anyone about to start a similar project.

It has been a joy working on this publication and I hope that people will find the information within its pages helpful. The uniqueness of the book lies in the advice given by those who have taken part in EAP projects and I am extremely grateful for their contributions. But of course, since submitting the draft manuscript to Open Book Publishers, I have received more images of projects being carried out in the field. Although it was too late to include them in the publication, I thought I would share just some in this blog to show that  projects continue to work successfully throughout the world, often in very unique circumstances.  

EAP935_Pub004

EAP935: digitising archival material in northern Ghana

Tristan

EAP951: working on Tristan da Cunha

EAP1005

EAP1005: a portable set-up for Cham manuscripts in Vietnam

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EAP1042: working with the Cisse community in Senegal

16 March 2018

The Manuscripts of Mali

The fabled city of Timbuktu has attracted frequent media attention over the last few years. During the occupation of northern Mali by Al Qaida linked extremists in 2012 the destruction of mausoleums to local Islamic saints in Timbuktu caused an international outcry and resulted in a UNESCO funded rebuilding project after the recapture of the city in 2013. The extremists also burned around 4500 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba Institute as their last act of defiance before the French and Malian forces re-conquered Timbuktu. Already during the Jihadist occupation many thousands of manuscripts had been transported in secret to Bamako in the now famous rescue operation organised by the Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara. This swashbuckling tale has been the subject of two international best-selling novels, The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu (2016) by Joshua Hammer and The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu (2017) by Charlie English, as well as countless articles and documentary films. Timbuktu, ante bellum, was a thriving city of tourism and the centre of over fifty private family libraries which have now been moved to Bamako where the manuscripts are receiving conservation treatment and are being digitised by SAVAMA, an association of Timbuktu libraries led by Abdel Kader Haidara, which has received international funding from the German, Dutch, Luxemburg, Swiss and Norwegian governments as well as the Ford Foundation and many other sources.

Timbuktu-139086

Certain important libraries in Timbuktu declined taking part in the rescue mission to relocate to Bamako. Instead they chose to hide their precious manuscripts in secret desert hiding places in and around Timbuktu: these include the Imam Essayouti, Al Aquib and Al Wangara manuscript libraries, attached in turn to the three ancient mosques of Timbuktu: the Djinguereber (built 1327), the Sankore (built soon after) and Sidi Yahya (1440). Together they compose what was known as the University of Timbuktu. The British Library, through the Endangered Archives Programme and in partnership with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota, USA, is now undertaking the digitisation of these libraries in situ in Timbuktu, where work is underway in the Imam Essayouti library since October 2017, and will begin in the Al Wangara in April 2018.

  Imam Ben Essayouti and Sophie resize
Imam Ben Essayouti with Sophie Sarin

Al AquibThe Imam of Sankore at the Al Aquib Library, Timbuktu

Al WangaraThe Al Wangara Library

Although the main concentration of Arabic manuscripts in Mali was undoubtedly in Timbuktu due to its position as the most important trading city of the Trans-Saharan trade route since the early Middle Ages, other Malian cities also boast large deposits of ancient Arabic manuscripts: Djenné in particular. It is situated some 500 km south of Timbuktu in the Niger Inland Delta of Central Mali and was also an important city of trade and scholarship and one of the gateways where Islam first penetrated Mali in the 13th century. Djenné is a repository for thousands of manuscripts which have been kept by families for centuries. In 2009, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme ran a Pilot Project, which concluded that Djenné’s manuscripts provided a suitable source of material for the mounting of a major two year digitisation project. This was the first in a series of three consecutive major projects, which finally came to an end in October 2017, when in the region of 400,000 images had been achieved from the 8,500 manuscripts which are currently stored in the Djenné Manuscript Library.

Library front Djenn√© Manuscript Library

Malian manuscripts deal in the main with traditional Islamic subject matter such as Hadiths (traditional sayings and stories attributed to the Prophet Mohammed), Islamic Jurisprudence of the Malikite School, religious poetry and sermons etc. There are also frequent philosophical expositions, mainly on ethics and logic as well as many manuscripts dealing with the Arabic language and grammar. There is history, correspondence, and astronomy which is normally treated as inseparable from astrology. A large proportion of the manuscripts, particularly in Djenn√©, fall under the label ‚Äėesoteric‚Äô; incantations and magic formulas which purport to tell the future or influence the course of events by the use of phrases from the Qur‚Äôan in combination with the manipulation of vegetable matter or animal sacrifices. These sorts of practises are frowned upon by certain factions within Islam and some believe that this may possibly have caused the destruction of the manuscripts in Timbuktu by the fundamentalists who derive their Islamic creed from the Wahhabist school of Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The involvement of the British Library through the EAP in these projects in Mali continues to be instrumental in safeguarding these manuscripts. In the case of Djenné not only in digital form but also in providing a physically safe environment for the storage of the documents, which had previously been kept in very precarious situations in the family homes, susceptible to the vagaries of the climate where during the rainy season violent rainstorms often cause destruction to the fragile mud buildings, and insects are a continuous hazard.

Fig 9 MaliDigitising in Djenn√©

However, the menace for the manuscript collections in both Djenn√© and Timbuktu lies not only in the threat of physical deterioration; the political situation is very unstable. There exists an uneasy truce in Timbuktu, but Islamic extremists are encamped in the surrounding desert and attacks on the city are frequent despite a very large UN peace keeping force.  Similarly, the escalating security crisis in central Mali is making the future uncertain for the Djenn√© Manuscript Library. State presence is withdrawing from the area as frequent attacks from local Islamic fundamentalists target state employees at institutions such as gendarme guard posts and schools. The Mission Culturelle, as the representative of the Ministry of Culture is a potential target and by extension the Djenn√© Manuscript Library. So far neither has been targeted, but the situation is volatile. The fact that the Djenn√© collection of documents has now been digitised and that copies exists at the British Library and also at the National Archives in Bamako means that although the original copies continue to be kept in troubled central Mali, at least the vast majority of manuscripts have now been saved for scholars in digital form, and the Timbuktu manuscripts from the three famous Timbuktu University Libraries are now also on their way to being digitally preserved for posterity.

Written by Sophie Sarin, grant holder of five EAP projects based in Mali: EAP269, EAP488 (Over 2000 manuscripts newly online), EAP690, EAP879 and EAP1094

 

From September 2018, the British Library will be showcasing the projects carried out in Djenn√© in the form of an exhibition to be held along the Second Floor Gallery. There will also be accompanying events related to Mali during the autumn, so do check the Library's What's on page later in the year.