Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

06 May 2022

New online - April 2022

In this month's round-up we have a collection of portrait photographs from Lima, Peru (EAP1234), and two collections from Sri Lanka, palm-leaf manuscripts from the Jaffna, Vanni, and Mannar districts (EAP1056), and Tamil Protestant records from the Jaffna Peninsula (EAP971). You can read more about each of the projects below and follow the links to see the catalogued records, digitised images, and project information.

EAP1234 - Preservation of Film Negatives of the Elias del Aguila Collection of the Historical Archive of Centro de la Imagen 

Eap1234/1 family portrait

When the Elías del Águila collection first arrived at the Centro de la Imagen in Lima, Peru, it was concealed within another acquisition, the Fotografia Central/Estudio Courret archive. Though originally attributed to the Courret brothers, research in 2015 revealed the true source to be the photographer Elías del Águila and his studio, E. del Águila y Cía in central Lima, operational from 1903 until the late 1930s. Until this discovery, Elías remained practically unknown and there are still relatively few details known about his life.

His studio was popular with Lima’s burgeoning middle class of the early 20th century. Among his subjects, researchers have identified important businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians, including child portraits of the two-time President of Peru, Fernando Belaúnde Terry. Other notable portraits in the archive include those of the architect Ricardo Malachowski, the former mayor of Lima Augusto Benavides, and the scientist and diplomat Vitold de Szyszlo.

The Centro de la Imagen holds over 20,000 of Elías’s negatives in their archive. For this pilot project the local team catalogued, digitised, and rehoused some of the most endangered of them. Over 2,000 of these images are now available to view on the EAP website.

Eap1234/1 portrait of two boys


EAP1056 - Survey and digitisation of individual manuscript collections in Northern Sri Lanka

Eap1056 project work

This project surveyed and digitised endangered Tamil and Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscript collections in the Jaffna, Vanni, and Mannar districts of Northern Sri Lanka. The team conducted more than 150 field visits and identified 49 different collections. Many of these were located in temples, medical centres, and local libraries, while others are in the care of families and individuals including priests, medical practitioners, and astrologers.

135 manuscripts were digitised from 21 different collections in total and broadly cover the following subjects: traditional Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine; Hindu religious and temple ritual texts; astrology/astronomy works; local histories; literature; mathematics; unorthodox Hindu folk practice-related works including those on tantra, mesmerism, witchcraft, and folklore; and archival records including birth charts and budgets.



EAP971 - Jaffna Protestant Digital Archive

Eap971 sample

This project is a continuation of the EAP835 pilot project, which produced a survey (and some sample digitisation) of archives from the Tamil Protestant community of the Jaffna Peninsula. EAP971 built on the knowledge and experience from this earlier project and returned to carry out larger-scale digitisation from eight different archives. They include collections from Jaffna College Archive, St John's College, Evelyn Rutnam Institute, and Uduvil Girls' College. Digitised records include church record and ledger books, correspondence, and college magazines.

There are over 240 digitised items available to view here. An additional 27 items can be vieweed from the earlier project here

Eap971 sample

23 February 2022

Digitising Arabic Manuscripts in Mattool, North Kerala (EAP1390)

Ali Thangal and Muneer
Ali Thangal and Muneer

Carrying out a digitisation project in between the pandemic waves entails many challenges that only a fabulous and resourceful project team can successfully tackle. Luckily, a pilot project (EAP1228), undertaken between November 2019 and January 2020, organised and trained such a team just before the pandemic started. The pilot project delivered a survey of handwritten manuscripts at the family archive of Sayed Ali Ba Alawi (Ali Thangal) and organised a team of three digitisation and cataloguing trainees, Sajeev, Fasil, and Muneer. We were also fortunate to have the best digitisation expert in Kerala, Shiju Alex (see here), who trained Sajeev and Fasil in capturing images and working with the hardware and software in the most professional way. Shiju continues to support the current project with advice and guidance, as Sajeev and Fasil manage the digitisation process efficiently and to the highest standards. Sajeev has just completed his MPhil in Malayalam and Cultural Heritage Studies at the Shree Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit (regional branch in Thirur). Fasil, a BCom graduate, is a talented photographer, who had produced charming videos of mawlid chanting for the pilot project in 2019. Muneer is a madrasa student in Kodiyathur with proficient knowledge of Arabic and Malayalam. He works on the catalogue and is supported remotely by the PI in inserting diacritic marks and metadata on a spread sheet, not a trivial task at all when one’s pronunciation of the Arabic language is coloured by Dravidian phonology.

Sajeev (left) and Fasil (right)
Sajeev (left) and Fasil (right)

Ali Thangal and Muneer work closely on the catalogue of the manuscripts’ image folders, while Sajeev and Fasil work on capturing the books. Ali Thangal’s archive is dynamic; it keeps on changing like a river flowing along a curvy path, at times thickening, at times splitting into rivulets. Ali Thangal takes great efforts in finding the names of authors and scribes when they are not specified in the manuscript. He opens reference books and crosschecks names and titles to complement missing information wherever possible. Muneer on his part skillfully checks for details online to harvest metadata whenever the need arises. And so, the information on each and every text is represented in the most coherent manner possible. The project PI guides Muneer in typing the metadata, translating titles into English, and typing diacritic marks according to academic standards. This is done remotely. We rely on broadband internet connection for meeting on Zoom to work together on the catalogue.

Of the archive’s contents, especially challenging are the majmuʿas, or anthologies with several manuscripts bundled in one volume. From the perspective of researchers, we would like to keep these majmuʿas intact, as they represent performative, living traditions. But the perspective of the archive owner, Ali Thangal, is somewhat different. He would like to represent his collection in the most accurate way, as it is going to be displayed on the website of a prestigious, world-famous library. This brings about some changes in the behaviour of Ali Thangal’s dynamic archive. And so, the first majmuʿa to have been digitised was dismantled into three parts, each with its own complete manuscript with a brand-new binding. The second majmuʿa, however, remained intact upon the PI’s request. This Majmuʿa al-Mawlid is a collection of seventeen smaller manuscripts, all are devotional poems of praise to Muḥammad, of course, but also to his family members Ḥamza and Fāṭimah, to other saints such a Muḥyi al-Dīn (Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jilānī) and other saints and spiritual figures, including Jesus (Mawlūd al-Qudus). Of particular interest is the mawlid dedicated to the legendary Hindu king Cēramāṉ Perumāḷ, who is believed to have converted to Islam and met the Prophet before dividing his kingdom into twelve districts, each with its own mosque. This tradition was passed down in Arabic texts and Malayalam palm leaf manuscripts, and possibly orally as well. However, this mawlid of Sharamā Farmāḷ (or, in Arabic: Mawlūd Tāj al-Dīn al-Hindī) is a new source that has not been studied so far. It is a significant discovery, because the mawlid genre is evidence for oral transmission and performative background. Such discoveries make this project especially exciting and motivating to continue unearthing the textual heritage guarded so lovingly and meticulously by Ali Thangal.

Ashir (left) and Safvana (right)
Ashir (left) and Safvana (right)

Two more team members, Ashir and Safvana, are in charge of coordinating the project in Mattool and organising home stay and homemade food for Sajeev, Fasil, and Muneer. But there is more to it than merely organisation and hosting; Ashir and Safvana have collected historical objects and stored them in their house. We therefore use this time in Mattool to survey the objects in their home for planning a future digitisation project to include also these valuable historical artefacts. Once the bulk of the surveyed manuscripts has been completed and stored online, we have started to survey the objects in Ashir and Safvana’s home. We have decided to start with their impressive coin collection, with some coins going back as far as the sixteenth century. The reason is that for the survey we need to know the size and weight of the objects, so we can plan what equipment is required for capturing tridimensional, asymmetric objects, some of which are quite bulky. The coins are relatively simple as they are small. And so, we purchased a caliper and a kitchen scale so that Ashir with the support of Sajeev and Fasil can start working on the coin survey.

There is a greater vision behind this ongoing project in Mattool. The team members hope to further develop this initiative into a heritage preservation project. Ali Thangal, Ashir, and Safvana had established a cultural association, the Mattool Hazrami Foundation, long before the project PI first approached them. Ashir was fostering a dream to establish a local museum for the objects in his collection so they will be better preserved and attract visitors from the vicinity, perhaps even tourists from afar. The objects and documents in Ashir’s collection are historically significant, as Ashir is a descendant of the Kuñjāli Marakkārs, those famous valiant seafarers who served the Zamorins of Calicut as their naval forces in times of war. It is the same legendary Cēramāṉ Perumāḷ commemorated in the Arabic mawlid, who bestowed Calicut upon the Zamorins, along with a sword to fight, defeat, and claim territory from all rival petty kings settled in the divided kingdom of Malabar. Ali Thangal’s living, restless archive cannot be captured in images alone; its textual heritage underlies con-textual associations on both local and trans-local levels. We all hope that the vision to establish a cultural heritage centre to digitise, preserve, and display Mattool’s hidden treasures will become a reality despite the challenges to realising dreams in times of turbulence and uncertainty.

Written by EAP1390 project lead, Dr Ophira Gamliel, University of Glasgow

17 January 2022

New online - December 2021

This month's round-up of newly available collections features archives from India, Romania, Moldova, and Indonesia.

EAP1130 - Digitisation of the Kováts Napfényműterem photographic archive (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania)

Eap1130 sample image

This project digitised photographs from the Kovats Photographic Museum and Studio in Romania. The vast majority of the photos represent the work of several generations of photographers from the Kovats family. A small part of the photographic archive consists of images created by collaborators of the Kovats studio, and of donations of photographic materials from the local population of Odorheiul Secuiesc.

The first photographic studio in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc) was founded by Ferenczy Lukács (1850-1926) in 1876. In 1903 Kováts István Sr.(1881-1942) bought the studio from Lukács and in 1906 reopened it under his own name – Kováts Napfényműterem (Kováts Sunlight Studio). It still operates today at the same address. Ferenczy Lukács and Kováts István Sr. were not only photographers, but also amateur historians and ethnographers. They documented with passion and attention for detail the life of the small rural communities, mainly of Hungarian and Székely ethnicity, around Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc).

Kováts István Sr. was also a photographer in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War, and he was dispatched throughout Europe on the Romanian, Galician and Italian battlefields. He brought back around 400 negatives with images from the trenches, portraits of fellow soldiers, and daily life of his company – a personal view of a war that re-shaped Europe and changed the life of millions of its inhabitants, a view that offers to any military historian precious documents. Living for most of his life in Székelyudvarhely, Kováts István Sr. documented everything – social life, architecture, traditions, and his studio was a central point in the life of the city.

Over 5000 photographs can be viewed here.

EAP1262 - Preserving the History of Indian Cinema through Digitising Early Urdu Film Magazines

Eap1262/1/1/1 image 88

This project aimed to preserve the rich record of cinema history in India through digitising Urdu film magazines and periodicals from the early twentieth century. Shedding new light on South Asian film journalism and readership, this material highlights aspects of local engagement with film that have remained unexamined so far and are under threat of being lost forever. Given the scarcity of Urdu material that survives today, the digitisation of rare film magazines makes a significant contribution to future scholarship on the subject. This material constitutes an invaluable resource for early Indian film history and Urdu writing on cinema.

While Indian film journalism has not been widely studied, this is all the more concerning for Urdu materials that are less accessible and less widely read than those in other languages, especially English. The production triangle of Hindu-Urdu cinema that spanned Bombay, Calcutta, and Lahore changed irrevocably with partition, and many publications and films from Lahore are believed to be lost forever. The periodicals surveyed and digitised under EAP1262 were largely published in Calcutta, with the exception of one very rare publication from Lahore, and represent a valuable record of an undivided Hindi-Urdu film culture. While Bombay became the major centre for Hindi-Urdu film production, and a more important site for Urdu publishing than Calcutta, these publications offer an invaluable off-centre vantage point of colonial-era Hindi-Urdu film culture and journalism.

The archives can be viewed here.

EAP699 - Safeguarding of the intangible Romani heritage in the Republic of Moldova threatened by the volatilisation of the individual unexplored collections

EAP699 sample image

This project digitised the personal archives of several Roma families in Moldova. The archives mostly consist of individual photographs and photo albums. The albums are notable for their use of illustrations and collage alongside the photographs of loved ones.

During the project the team were able to discover and digitise material from the families of some well-known Roma personalities from the past, as well as material from ordinary Roma families. The digitised material is now publicly available in the Moldovan National Archive as well as the British Library, and is an important source of information for Romani studies.

The project digitised 2557 images from 36 individual collections dating from between 1925-2013. They can be viewed here.

EAP1268 - Personal Manuscripts on the Periphery of Javanese Literature: A Survey and Digitisation of Private Collections from the Javanese North Coast, its Sundanese Hinterlands and the Fringes of Court

Eap1268/3/3 image 3

The project highlights the periphery of Javanese and Sundanese literature. It covers tales written by scribes residing near shrines, notebooks scribbled by commoners, and works produced by courtiers on their own behalf without apparent patronage from nobles or sovereigns. The grant holder came across these sources while doing fieldwork in places like Gresik, Yogyakarta, Surakarta and Tasikmalaya. Their vernacular provenance increases their obscurity and simultaneously limits their preservation due to a lack of patrons. Thus, it also allows for an interesting survey on the more personal sides of Javanese and Sundanese writing.

Other than surveying and digitising these sources, the project team also used them for Natural Language Processing (NLP). The diversity of the writing styles and vernacular languages found within these manuscripts is expected to contribute to the development of a comprehensive Javanese handwritten text and entity recognition model called Gado2.

399 digitised records can be viewed here.