Endangered archives blog

2 posts from September 2019

17 September 2019

Preserving pious print - the Maalim Muhammad Idris Collection, Zanzibar.

EAP1114 digitised a collection of print and manuscript Islamic material deriving from the collection of the late imam and teacher, Maalim Muhammad Idris – known locally as Maalim Idris. As a collector, Maalim  Idris himself was concerned that the Muslim intellectual and scriptural heritage of Zanzibar – and the wider Swahili coast – was deteriorating to the point of being lost. The result would be, according to him, new generations unable to access their heritage, whether from the point of view of historical interest or for religious learning. Maalim Idris was also very aware of the irony that while Zanzibar as a world heritage site was being lauded for its outstanding architecture, its actual history in the form of books, manuscripts and papers were of less concern to international conservation efforts.

The team around the digitisation studio
The end of EAP1114 was marked with a workshop held in Zanzibar on July 2-3rd. Here, scholars and stakeholders shared their experiences from very similar situations in Harar (Ethiopia), Lamu (Kenya), and northern Mozambique (Cabo Delgado and Nampula provinces.) Some of the collections presented at the workshop were previously part of EAP projects, including EAP466 (Riyadha Manuscript Collection, Lamu) and EAP602 (Audio Recordings, Sherif Harar City Museum). These collections have very different biographies, being both organic results of a particular mosque, or the results of deliberate efforts to preserve textual material. Some are still part of functional institutions, while others are today mainly kept as heritage. The EAP PowerPoint presentation at the workshop
Over the two days, participants discussed the challenges to, and possibilities for, a more integrated view of heritage that also includes the Muslim traditions of the region. Here, we would like to share some of the insights from our discussions, and point to a number of recommendations garnered from our deliberations. The audience sitting and listening to the presentation.

A regional tradition – a regional approach

The traditional Islamic scholarly centres – from Harar in the north to Ilha de Mozambique in the south – are very much part of the same tradition. The collections hold numerous copies of the same texts, including legal, linguistic and devotional materials. There are, of course, also notable differences, which indicate the evolution of specific, local traditions, often formulated in ajami (local languages in Arabic writing). But texts are also tied to practice. Teaching styles, ritual performance and localized understandings of the faith, can all be discerned from the texts a given community collected or produced. Any conservation effort – physical or digital – should take this into account. These collections, as a whole, are testimony to the Eastern African style of collection, conservation, teaching and knowledge production. However, they are also how people live and practice their religion.

The collections also face much of the same challenges. Climatic challenges include high humidity, fungus and insects, dust and flooding. In some areas, notably Lamu, there have been security concerns, with raids by the Somali al-Shabab on more than one occasion. In others, notably northern Mozambique but also elsewhere, there is a significant ideological challenge, due to the rise of Wahhabi-oriented groups that see little or no value in the “superstitions” of the past. A challenge common to all the collections is the inability of traditional custodians (mosques, individuals or community groups) to provide adequate security for the collections – let alone proper conservation. In some instances, collaboration with national institutions (archives, museums) is well-established and functioning–such as Lamu; in other cases–Zanzibar–less so. Even in the best of scenarios, the capacity of national institutions is limited, and often dependent on donor projects to preserve their own collections. Several workshop participants noted that inheritance issues; lack of institutional plans for transmission from one generation to the next and; the lack of resources makes the situation even more perilous. The rise of new teaching methods (online academies, modern PDF format textbooks) have also proved a challenge to the conservation of paper material). Finally, the illegal purchasing of manuscripts erodes the material.

What can be done on a regional level?

While we readily find commonalities among collections and the challenges they face, a regional approach to addressing these is harder to achieve. National institutions work within their own domestic strategies, and local custodians within their own resource- or sociopolitical limitations. However, below are some steps that may ensure a better prospect for this rich heritage:

The creation of an archival map

Even in historical centres like the Lamu and Zanzibar archipelagoes, there is to date no integrated overview of Islamic scriptural heritage under private ownership (i.e. mosques, families or with individuals). So, our knowledge of what actually exists, is fragmentary at best. The Zanzibar Institute of Archives and Records are currently starting an “archival mapping” process in the archipelago.

Improved partnerships between private custodians and branches of state institutions

Given that mosques and traditional teaching institutions remain custodians of much of this material, they are also subject to the challenges of poor funding, generational transitions and the rise of “new Ulama”. This can be mitigated through collaboration with local branches of national heritage institutions, whereby material may be deposited for conservation and safekeeping when needed. This may in itself also raise awareness of the value of the material qua heritage, and as such mitigate the ideological issues.

Material having arrived and is in piles waiting to be sorted.

Conservation efforts – digital and physical

The benefits of digitizing local endangered collections are numerous. In addition, to saving–at least in some format–materials that would otherwise be lost, digitization projects like the EAP raise the profile of such collections especially amongst local stakeholders. Ideally, they also improve access not only for the international scholarly community but for those living in the locales where they reside.  However, there are also downsides. Digitising is an option that provides access and raises awareness, but it does not solve the longer-term questions of the lives of collections. Digitising should not be confused with conservation, as digital images are really only proxies that do nothing to preserve the original material. Furthermore, while the digital format theoretically provides greater access by members of the local community, internet access and bandwidth continue to be issues. The latter may be solved by providing low-res solutions such as apps for smartphones that can allow easy access via local wifi. The former, however as many participants pointed out, continues to be an issue that cannot be addressed by digitization alone. They thus advocated for the need to begin to couple conservation efforts with digital preservation.

Two team members wearing Team EAP1114 Zanzibar T Shirts  looking at a laptop

Awareness-raising – suggestions

The link between text and performance is one potential avenue for awareness-raising. Texts like the Mawlid Barzanji or the Qasidat al-Burda are found in all locations, but are performed with slight variations. Placing these variations on display is one way of raising awareness also on the performative aspect. This could be both live and on platforms like YouTube etc. Workshops should be held that include relevant regional heritage institutions (archives and museums) and custodians. Such short courses might focus on the training of local custodians (religious leaders, family members) in some of the most basic and low cost elements of textual conservation such as cleaning and pest remediation.

EAP1114 team

Salum Suleiman, Director, Zanzibar Institute of Archives and Records; Omar Shehe Khamis, Head of Oral History Unit,  Zanzibar Institute of Archives and Records; Saleh Muhammed Idris, Comorian Association, Zanzibar; Hassan Muhammad Kawo, PhD Candidate, Addis Abeba University/University of Cape Town; Chapane Mutiua, PhD Candidate; Eduardo Mondlane University/Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg University; Aydaroos Muhsin Jamal al-Layl, Former participant on EAP466 and MA Candidate, Nairobi University; Ahmed Yaqoub Almaazmi, PhD Candidate, Princeton University; Hemed Ali Al Ruwehy, Chief Engineer, Bergen University Library; Scott Reese, Professor, Northern Arizona University; Anne K. Bang, Professor, University of Bergen

10 September 2019

Eight weeks at EAP

My name is Yiru Guo, a student of Museum Studies from the University of Leicester, on a summer placement with the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP). It was my pleasure to be a part of the EAP team, which aims to foster the digitisation of threatened archival documents around the world and make them freely accessible for the public.

Portrait of Yiru Guo standing in a cave.

Over the past two months of my placement, I was encouraged to join rich staff talks and British Library tours, including the treasures room and the conservation studio.

Additionally, I received training to use open source software Open Refine, which I used to process metadata, including the extraction of named entities and reconciliation with Wikidata.

My main tasks were to improve metadata relating to Chinese language collections, catalogue a new accession of Lanten manuscripts from Northern Laos, and promote EAP on Weibo social media. I learnt that sharing knowledge and expertise is vital to enhance research all over the world and sustain a team of preserving cultural heritage.

Staff sitting around a large table watching a presentation.

Group of British Library placement students looking at a display of bookbinding tools.

Improving metadata for Chinese language projects

Because some EAP projects only have transliterated (Pinyin) titles, I enhanced this metadata by checking the digitised manuscripts and creating Chinese language titles, as found on the original manuscripts. This will help improve the accuracy of the online search function and facilitate greater public access. Therefore, researchers can discover more details about these archives and conduct further studies.

On the left a digitised manuscript visible on the EAP website, on the right the catalogue entry.

Cataloguing the Lanten Manuscipts project (EAP791)

When every EAP project is completed, the project team supply the digital images and corresponding metadata to the EAP team, who process the content and make it available online. It was a great experience for me to participate in the Lanten manuscripts project. Using Open Refine, I processed all of the catalogue data for this project. This included checking the content of places, dates and subjects, and calculating the number of digital images and the digital file size of each record. Sometimes, it was important to check the images and find modern equivalents of ancient Chinese characters. This process is essential for making the material accessible to the public and making them more discoverable.

On the left Open Refine software, on the right the Lanten project page on the EAP website.

Promote EAP on the Weibo social media

I also helped introduce and promote the achievements of EAP's projects on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo. I wrote two posts for the official Weibo account of the British Library and received positive feedback in the comments. This encouraged people to contemplate the importance of preserving and digitising endangered archives and pay attention to their invaluable cultural heritage. I hope that it will also lead to the preservation of more endangered documents by EAP and lead to further use of this material by researchers.

Weibo post in Chinese showing images from EAP projects.

Weibo post in Chinese showing photographs of London.

Professional development

Taking part in this placement has been significantly beneficial to me. The development of my digital skills, the processing of archival metadata, and the use of collection management systems will broaden my career path and help me to work in or collaborate with different departments. It will increase my competitive capability to transfer this experience to work on digitisation projects within the museum sector. It has also taught me transferable skills such as teamwork, time management and communication.

Learning more about the Endangered Archives Programme and digitising endangered heritage material has given me a better understanding of the British Library’s wider role in the world, and how it interacts and assists with other places, no matter where they are. I understand that preserving cultural archives is not merely a work done by one person or team; it requires the combined effort of many people around the world.

In conclusion, I would like to thank the EAP team for all they have done for me.  I am really glad that I did this placement. Not only do I understand more about the cultural institutions in the UK, my professional and personal development have greatly improved too. It was an unforgettable and fulfilling experience to be here with the EAP team.

The front of the British Library on a sunny day.