Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

06 December 2019

Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques & Approaches - a training workshop offered by Jadavpur University, School for Cultural Texts and Records

A man standing by a blackboard and giving a presentation

We decided to inaugurate the webpage of our project EAP1247 – Songs of the Old Madmen – with a short piece about the first concrete step towards the creation of our digital archive. Our first tangible accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of the EAP1247 grant and our local archival partner at SCTR, Jadavpur University. We are grateful to the entire team, who generously shared their knowledge and expertise during an intensive four-day training workshop. In this piece, we will discuss the structure of the training workshop and some of its outcomes -- hoping to provide some useful information and experiences for future EAP grant holders and workshop organisers.

The poster advertising the workshop

The training workshop ‘Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques& Approaches’ consisted of both theoretical and practical sessions. Eminent speakers presented critical topics of archival ethics and methodologies. Hands-on modules and laboratory group work provided a well-balanced preparation for the future generations of digital humanists. We recommend to future grant holders that they start their project with a training workshop with the local archival partners, to gather the necessary knowledge and familiarize with the international standards of digital archiving processes, but also to make sure that all the team members and collaborating institutions are on the same page!

Our training workshop was open and free for all local students and invited scholars. It offered the opportunity for students and scholars of other departments and institutions within and beyond Kolkata (some participants came all the way from Bangladesh) to partake in the valuable experience and extraordinary expertise of faculty staff and research fellows from the School of Cultural Texts and Records. They have been conducting digitisation projects since 2003 and have completed six projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. Jadavpur University has been recognized among the top 10 institutions in the world in the field of digital humanities. We feel fortunate to have worked with such a  fantastic archival partner!

The workshop started with a lecture by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (EAP127, EAP261) who introduced us to the past, present, and future of digital humanities at Jadavpur University, an institution that is adamant about protecting academic freedom in these challenging times of bigotry and governmental intrusion in the field of education and research. He showed successful examples (see Bichitra) and ongoing projects that transform disturbingly neglected cultural texts and vernacular manuscripts into binary code, where everything, from words to sounds, is translated, reduced to, and stored as, zeros and ones. What we found particularly inspiring was Prof. Chaudhuri’s reminder that there are no sacrosanct specifications in the realm of digital archives: one can always suggest innovations, if these worked as solutions for a particular kind of endangered material.

A woman presenting at the workshop a slide of a map is in the background

Professor Anuradha Chanda’s lecture focused on the practical challenges, limitations, and problematic issues that emerged during her fieldwork, aimed at collecting Sylheti Nagri manuscripts in Northeast India and Bangladesh (see EAP071 for her EAP project). These manuscripts are kept hidden from orthodox Islamic authorities which contain esoteric and antinomian teachings in a distinctive script of the regional Bengali variant. These little-known texts, were supposed to be written for womenfolk in a simplified alphabet, but Prof. Anuradha Chanda’s research revealed a more complex (hi)story. The historical, literary, and symbolic value that Prof. Chanda and her team attributed to the preservation of these texts triggered a response among the local community, who started a popular movement of revaluation of their cultural heritage. This incident shows that the creation of digital archives does not exist in a vacuum of social power, but rather, it is always entangled with local cultural histories and hierarchies, and it has a direct impact on the field in which it operates. Her fieldwork involved a great deal of grassroots networking, negotiation in the politics of cultural and ethno-linguistic identity in Assam, and delicate navigation through the politics of cultural texts, the local protocols of knowledge accessibility, and the oscillation between pride and stigma associated with a non-official way of being Muslim. These issues are often invisible in the ‘final product’: they are not legible through the digitised images of the preserved texts, nor through the metadata that accompanies them. However, these practical and ethical issues, that require skills to understand the local politics and the power dynamics of cultural representation, form the fundamental backbone of a digital archive of endangered cultural texts. The Sylheti Nagri manuscripts belong to the Indian and Bangladesh cultural zone – extending to the bordering regions of Burma and Southern China. This material reminds us that the circulation of cultural texts does not coincide with the rigid borders of post-colonial nation-states. The flows of cultural texts, especially when linked to folklore and oral transmission, cannot be encapsulated in the nationalist regimes of cultural heritage. This problematic issue resonated particularly well with our own EAP project, since the endangered note-books and manuscripts of old Baul songs that we are aiming to preserve, are distributed in the porous cultural area of Bengal, which is shared between two nations: India and Bangladesh. These archives will hopefully lead international actors and funding entities in the field of cultural heritage to rethink of the unrealistically nation-centric ways in which we are expected to categorize, describe, and protect endangered collections.

Professor Chanda’s interlocutors had stories to tell about each of the text secretively preserved under the thatched roof of their homes. Copying the texts was perceived as a religious action of piety. There were emotions and sentiments related to the texts. These elements of the ethnographic life of a text and its cultural history often do not make it into ancillary metadata. Digital archives and their conventional norms are always the result of difficult selections, filters and omissions. They will not tell us how the Sylheti Nagri texts are chanted, or how they were allowed to be recited only in the night, before the morning call for prayers. Metadata can and should inform us about a cultural ‘item’ – its dimensions, conditions, and the details that we can access only by touching and smelling a text, rather than merely observing it – but it is only useful as long as it is short and concise, and therefore incapable of containing the emotional and performative life of a cultural text as ‘event’.

People sitting in a circle discussing issues

In a roundtable discussion, Professor Samantak Das, Professor Parthasarathi Bhaumik, and myself (Dr. Carola Erika Lorea) discussed archival ethics and the ethics of digital archives.  Who creates digital archives and for whom? Whose knowledge is included and represented? Whose knowledge is excluded? Is everybody equally able to access this mode of knowledge representation In this session we discussed the ethical implications, the power inequalities and the issues of ownership and accessibility involved in the creation of digital archives of vernacular culture in India, a country with 500 million internet users, but with only 3% households enabled to enjoy a computer connected to the internet, and with a massive digital divide in terms of gender and urban-rural gap (I discussed some of these issues in an earlier article for Cafe Dissensus).

Gentleman presenting the slide in the background is on the topic of sound archives

Professor Amlan Das Gupta (EAP132 and EAP274), Biswadeep Chakrabarty, and Pradip Deb conducted the sessions dedicated to the creation of sound archives, the history of sound recording, and the steps in the digitisation of music (SCTR hosts one of the largest digital archives of Indian classical music in the world ). Sound archives follow the conventions outlined in the handbook of the International Association of Sound and Video Archivists (IASA), but in practice, archiving is the art of making things work with the available means (an operation that has vernacular terms like jugaar in Hindi or ‘arrangiarsi’ in Italian) in face of the frequent occurrence of incompatibility and the fast obsolescence of carriers.

Analog mediums such as gramophone records, magnetic tape, wax cylinders, Teficords, and wire recorders are playing their swan song., While digital mediums for sound recording have progressed and changed incredibly fast in the past century; they are ‘philosophically different’ from born-digital material and present a particular set of challenges and problems in the field of preservation and digitisation. Digital storing mediums such as floppy discs, compact discs, mini discs, and  VCDs, are even more prone to vulnerability and instability, especially in relation to obsolescence. What clearly emerged in this session is that digital formats and materials are the most unstable, with an expected longevity of merely five years.

Diversify and update emerged as some fundamental keywords of a responsible project of music digitisation. Diversify storage formats and venues, creating as many copies as possible and storing them in different places, clouds, and hard drives. Updating and shifting the digital archive to newer platforms and formats can be an expensive and technically challenging process: a refreshment policy should be built in all archival projects if we want them to reach the next generations. Archives, as Prof. Amlan Das Gupta reminded us, are for the future; they are producing memories. They are not the heroic deed of an individual, but rather, the result of a collaborative project, involving the skills and labour of several people, institutions, collectors, researchers, and their expected audience of users.

Hands-on and gloves-on sessions: Handling fragile material and simulating remote capture

A long bench with people either side all wearing gloves and working on bound items

Close up of a woman handling a bound volume

Afternoon sessions and the whole fourth day of the training workshop have been  dedicated to practical sessions, aimed to build the required skills to handling fragile material and conduct an EAP project, from shooting high-quality images to creating metadata. What to digitise? How to digitise? The SCTR research fellows Amritesh Biswas, Purbasha Auddy and Moumita Haldar have generously shared their past experience with handling fragile collections and digitising endangered texts in order to prepare us for the upcoming fieldwork trips in rural West Bengal, where we will be digitising old note-books of Baul songs.

Example of a portable digitisation studio with tripod, laptop and lighting

The formation of a digital humanist engaged in preservation projects involves much more than technical skills. It requires a sort of character transformation, and the adoption of a certain set of values. Whereas the collector is moved by desire and personal taste, the archivist is supposed to be neutral: s/he protects the entire collection, without being moved by subjective preference. Even though we have post-editing technologies to make images and music sound ‘better’ or ‘clearer’, none of these modifications are part of an archivist’s work: collections are to be immortalized and faithfully represented for what they are. At the same time, the protocols of digital archives require us to always use the best available technology and the highest precision at our disposal, to record or capture our material. For images of manuscripts, we want to be able to zoom in and visualize every single detail: for scripts like Bengali, Farsi, and Arabic, for example, we should keep in mind that every single dot is important, for a minuscule dot can totally change the meaning of a word. This necessity dictates the rules of photography during remote capture: set your ISO at a maximum of 200, as this reduces noise; ensure that every part of the page including the edges are in focus, and avoid mixing lights to keep color and exposure consistent, more technical details are abundantly discussed in the EAP guidelines for Remote Capture.

Some of the mottoes of digitising projects in rural fieldwork sites, which might  seem obvious,, are often threatened by the temptation to opt for something more convenient in the immediate context of fieldwork. Schedule your digitisation following the norm the worst comes first: give priority to the most endangered and vulnerable items. Start by sorting out the objects: name them, clean them, create a specific folder and the required sub-folders for each. Segregate dangerous documents infested by pests. Think about the best available methods for preventive conservation (for example, wrap your items in acid-free paper or use silica gel bags for de-humidifying). Treat your equipment carefully during remote capture: for example, turn off the Live Mode in your camera utility software, unless you need to check your live image capture, or it will damage the longevity of your DSLR camera. Produce metadata as soon as you have the original item in hand, or you will miss a lot of precious information. Become familiar with your file management and naming practices (keep in mind that the last component of a file name is always numerical). Most importantly, demystify romantic notions about the creation of digital archives!

One of the best lines during the training workshop taught us that archive sounds cool, digitise sounds lovely, but actually it involves a lot of tedious issues and a lot of labour. As a matter of fact, we faced numerous compatibility issues during the post-process, which are a typical and unavoidable struggle. As soon as we brought our new Canon 6D to the School of Cultural Texts and Records to test it during the workshop, we realized that the laptops used at SCTR, which were perfectly fine for the previous EAP projects with their Canon 5D, were not equipped with the softwares or the versions needed to work with a Canon 6D. We needed to update a plethora of things - starting from the Canon EOS Utility -, figure out a different application to open and check the images, and reinstall a new version of Adobe Lightroom CC to process and export the images in TIFF. It is advisable to resolve these issues at the very beginning of the project, instead of finding oneself stuck with serious compatibility issues in a remote countryside!

Thanking once again the Endangered Archives Programme and the School for Cultural Texts and Records for this insightful experience, we encourage the readers to stay tuned for the upcoming posts on the next steps of our project EAP1247 on the Songs of the Old Madmen.  

Jay Guru!

Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore and Siddhartha Gomez (EAP1247)

 

 

 

 

 

 

03 December 2019

Locating and Sampling Arabic and Arabic-Malayalam Manuscripts in Kerala, South India

This initiative to locate and survey endangered archives in Kerala was awarded as a pilot project grant by the Endangered Archive Programme in May 2019. Besides surveying and contacting public and private archive owners, we intend to sample approximately 200 pages of hand-written manuscripts and rare lithographs. Some of the manuscripts constitute the written, visual facet of a living tradition of performance for religious and devotional practices. We therefore intend to sample also video and audio records of performances according to the Malabar style. Many of the texts constitute, besides devotional poetry, a rich intellectual legacy of jurisprudence, historiography, and various sciences such as medicine and even architecture. Even at this initial stage all of us involved feel as if standing on the threshold of a hidden garden full of treasures. We have already found textual material of great significance for early modern Malabar history to take us beyond the colonial archives that have been, so far, the primarily source for Kerala and Malabar historiography. We expect to find material that will reorient Malabar Māppiḷa literature and culture in the broader framework of the Arabic Cosmopolis, a term coined by Ronit Ricci in her seminal work, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis in South and Southeast Asia (Ronit Ricci was grant holder for EAP609).

The history of Malabar and the Malayalam-speaking region is the history of contacts and networks across Asia from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa to Southeast Asia. Pre-modern Malabar–the southwestern coastline of India including modern Kerala and Karnataka–was a central maritime junction between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for several centuries. Semitic and Indic religions interacted, enriching each other with various types of knowledge and cross-cultural exchanges resulting in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that is typical of the coastal communities across the Indian Ocean Rim. The contacts between Arabic and Malayalam are documented since the twelfth century in inscriptions and texts related to Indian Ocean trade. Some examples are Arabic inscriptions found on the West Coast of India commemorating the establishment of mosques by Muslim seafarers from as early as the twelfth century.

Our survey started in the area of Madayi, near Mount Hili (Ezhimala) that was the signifier of land for seafarers over history. Madayi is the site of a twelfth-century mosque, one of the earliest mosques in the region (the medieval structure was demolished in the 1940s giving way to a modern construction). We visited the home of Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi for surveying his impressive collection of manuscripts and rare lithographs in anticipation of a major digitization project in the future. We plan to return in late December for sampling digital copies of a small and beautifully written Burdah text, a hand-written Qur’an, and a majmūʿa manuscript that includes an extraordinary maulid composition named after Taj al-Dīn al-Hindī al-Malabārī, the famous Malayali king believed to have converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet. The story of the conversion is told in detail in the Arabic text called Qiṣṣat Shakarvatī Farmāz (1580 TAQ) and is retold in Malayalam in the Kēralōlpatti (ca. 1700, probably based on earlier oral traditions), in Portuguese in the Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim (1686), and in Syriac documents (1721 and 1871) translated by A. Mingana in 1926 (The Early Spread of Christianity in Kerala). Clearly, the archive faithfully kept by Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi in Mattool might produce textual material of significance for a wide variety of communities in Malabar and beyond.

Three people sitting in someone's home. They are looking at a manuscript and are in deep discussion.

Surveying manuscripts in Mattool; from left to right: Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Abdullah Anchillath, and Ophira Gamliel (photo by Dileepan Kunhimangalam)

So far, the brief survey at Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi’s archive focused on Arabic hand-written manuscripts and lithographs. Among the texts surveyed so far are fiqh (law), naḥw (grammar), qiṣṣa (story) and tārīkh (history), and qaṣīda (poetry or kavita). Some manuscripts are surprisingly broad in their regional and transregional affiliation, such as an “imitation” (takhmīs) poem composed by Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī (d. 1264) and “imitated” by Ṣadaqallāh al-Qāhirī of Kayalpaṭṭaṇam (Tamil Nadu) in 1885. There are also several majmūʿas (collections) with commentaries on Islamic literature and devotional poetry. As we were surveying the manuscripts, conversations ensued on interesting topics in relation to texts from the story of the late Sufi neighbor who mastered a jinn, to the history of the Araykkal rulers, to the medicinal expertise of Musa Musaliyār, the previous owner of one of the manuscripts, in curing mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, the news about the pilot project travelled far and wide and we were contacted by several local scholars interested in collaborating on surveying and locating more Arabic and Arabic Malayalam manuscript archives–private and public–around Calicut. By the time we complete the initial survey and the digitisation of a few selected texts, we hope to have more archive owners included in an area project, as well as team members, as clearly there is a lot of work on surveying, digitising, and installing preservation equipment in each archive. We thus started negotiating further surveys with C H Mappila Heritage Library in Calicut, with the team headed by Abdurahman Mangad, and with Dr Ajmal Mueen, whose family traces their lineage to the famous Makhdums of Ponnani.

Dr. Ajmal Mueen standing by some trees.

Dr. Ajmal Mueen (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Bookcase piled with manuscripts and books.

The manuscript collection at Dr Ajmal Mueen’s home in Mukkam, near Calicut (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Two men sit by a cupboard and drawers full of manuscripts. They are looking at one of them.

Abdullah Anchillath (right) and Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi (middle) examining a manuscript in November 2019 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Currently our team consists of Mr Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Mr Abdullah Anchillath, Dr Dinesan Vadakkiniyil, Mr Dileepan Kunhimangalam, and Mr Yusuf Ali for the survey in Mattool and Madayi, and Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. and Dr Saeko Yazaki in Kondotty and Parappanangady, where we plan to video record performance of Arabic Malayalam poems and recitations of Qur’an according to the Malabari style. Mr Shiju Alex will join us for the digitisation phase of the project during the third week of December in Kondotty. Shiju, an expert on digitisation of old and rare printed books in Malayalam (see here), will guide us in the delicate art of digitization. We plan to digitise 200 pages at least during those days for evaluating the volume of the work for a major (or area) project. Finally, there is also a “shadow” team member, Dr Ines Weinrich, who advises on the Arabic manuscripts and their significance from afar, in Germany, where she is currently working on a project on maulid literature over the ages and across regions, including Kerala.

A group of people, five women four of which are looking behind them. The one man is taking a photograph.

Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. in Kondotty during the Nercha festival, in February 2010 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Written by Dr Ophira Gamliel grant holder for EAP1228

04 November 2019

Rare Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts from Rural Kathmandu and the Hill Areas of Nepal

Among all the ancient languages, Sanskrit excels as being used in the greatest number of written works. Sanskrit is used for mainly Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts, covering medical manuals, literature and astrological works.

Two single manuscript pages placed one above the other. Each text has rows of Sanskrit.

Example of Buddhist religious stories

Nepal is the centre of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts, written in a variety of Newārī scripts on tree bark, palm-leaves and paper. The manuscripts are sources of profound knowledge. Nepalese Buddhist manuscripts are the only original extant sources of Mahāyāna Buddhism and has made the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Sanskrit possible. The texts are rare and often in a bad state due to natural and man-made conditions. The Endangered Archives Programme has supported the digitisation of these manuscripts through several projects:  EAP676, EAP790 and EAP1023. These grants have helped the exploration and digitisation of Buddhist manuscripts held in private collections and have been the first extended attempt to made public a significant number of these privately-owned manuscripts.  Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal are treated as sacred items having great religious value. They are not merely material objects but regarded as emanations of deities in which life is inserted through performing a ritual called Nyāsa [placing or inserting] led by Vajrācaryā priests.

Two long manuscript pages. One placed above the other. Each page has two holes roughly splitting the text into three sections. These holes are used to tie the manuscripts together.

Early example of a manuscript written on paper

EAP1023 has digitised 478 Sanskrit manuscripts in twenty-eight collections. They were written between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. They are rare and still highly valued in Newār households in Nepal. All the manuscripts were recovered from Buddhist families and the owners are all very keen to preserve them.

The types of manuscripts in this collection include: Sūtra (canonical scripture), Tantra, Kathā (stories), Vidhī (rituals) and Buddhist chronicles. Those endangered ancient and medieval specimen discuss various religious themes as well as guide to perform rituals.  

The story literature in Buddhism is divided into Jātaka tales (the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (noble deeds). This collection contains several Avadāna stories including rituals texts. Some interesting manuscripts in this collection are copies of the Sūtra of Fivefold Protection (Pañcarakṣā Sūtra). The five Sūtras are Āryamahāpratisarā, Mahāsahasrapramardinī, Mahāmāyurī, Mahāmantrāṇusārinī and Mahasitavatī.

Pañcarakṣā and Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras were widely written and recited during the medieval times in Nepal. Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is believed to bring auspicious moments and bring protection from bad planets, evil souls, calamities, diseases, effects of poisons and so on. This text has five individual Sūtras. Five individual deities are emanated from the five Sūtras, each having special powers. Their influence is highlighted in the narrative descriptions of each Sūtra. Traditionally, the Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is written in golden, silver or organic homemade black ink. This collection also has the earliest dated Nepalese paper manuscript belonging to the twelfth century. From the Buddhist viewpoint, this collection is invaluable.

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre.

Illustrated examples of  the Pañcarakṣā with writing in gold

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre

Two pages of a manuscript a significant corner of each page is missing an burn marks are clearly visible.

A copy of the Pañcarakṣā Sutra, there looks as if there has been fire damage to the manuscript

Written by Dr. Shanker Thapa, Professor of History at Tribhuvan University and grant holder for EAP1023, EAP790 and EAP676.

24 October 2019

The hour is approaching!

Clock2.1

The deadline for applications for the next round of EAP grants is fast approaching! Midday GMT on Monday 11th November. We look forward to receiving a rich and diverse inbox to sift though.

 

Do read the Guidelines for Applicants https://eap.bl.uk/sites/default/files/2019%20Guidance%20for%20applicants%20for%20website%20Sept2019.pdf before filling in your application forms. You might find the blogs about our webinars useful as well. We did a webinar in November 2018 in English https://blogs.bl.uk/endangeredarchives/2019/07/applicant-webinar-nov18.html and during the summer we put on webinars in Arabic, French and Spanish https://blogs.bl.uk/endangeredarchives/2019/07/webinars.html. It is also a good idea to ensure you and your host institution are familiar with the standard grant terms and conditions https://eap.bl.uk/sites/default/files/EAP%20Grant%20Terms%20%26%20Conditions%20template%20July%202019%20for%20website_1.pdf

 

If you can’t find the answers to your questions in any of those links, do get in touch. But remember – you can’t stop the clock!

 

Written by Ruth Hansford

EAP Grants Manager

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.

 

30 July 2019

Introducing EAP in other languages: French, Spanish and Arabic webinars

We would like to receive good, focused applications from as many parts of the world as possible. We recently put on a series of webinars to introduce the Programme and discuss how to make the best possible application, and therefore increase the likelihood of a successful project. The panel for each webinar included two previous Grant Holders who shared their experiences, talked about the challenges and gave their advice. Here are the presentations from the French, Spanish and Arabic webinars.

Please see the previous blog post 'Completing a Successful Preliminary Application' for further information in English.

Part of an illustrated manuscript from Eastern Chad
EAP472

Note that the working language for the Programme is English, and applications must be in English. Check our Guidance for more information and get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspect of the process. We look forward to receiving a rich and diverse set of applications for the next round which opens in September.


Nous aimerions recevoir des candidatures fortes et ciblées provenant d’un grand nombre de pays et de regions du monde. Nous avons récemment organisé une série de webinaires pour présenter le programme et discuter comment soumettre la meilleure candidature possible et ainsi augmenter vos chances de succès. Le panel de chaque webinaire comprenait deux anciens participants qui ont partagé leurs expériences, parlé des défis et donné leurs conseils. Voici la présentation en français:

 

Notez que l’anglais est la langue de travail du Programme et que les candidatures doivent être rédigées en anglais. Consultez le nouveau “Guidance for Applicants” (en anglais) pour plus d’informations et n’hésitez pas à nous contacter si vous souhaitez en savoir plus. Nous sommes impatients de recevoir des candidatures riches et variées pour la prochaine session qui sera en septembre prochain.


Nos gustaría recibir buenas, fuertes y concretas candidaturas provenientes de diferentes regiones del mundo. Recientemente organizamos una serie de seminarios web para presentar el programa y debatir como preparar de la mejor manera la solicitud y así aumentar la posibilidad de éxito de las propuestas. El panel de cada seminario web incluía dos antiguos participantes que compartieron sus experiencias, hablaron sobre posibles dificultades y dieron consejos. Aquí esta la presentación en lengua Española:

Tenga en cuenta que el Programa es en Ingles, y las candidaturas tienen que ser escritas en lengua Inglesa. Consulte nuestras Guia para los participantes, dónde obtendrá más información y no dude en contactarnos si desea comentar algún aspecto del proceso en concreto. Esperamos recibir candidaturas ricas y diversas para nuestra siguiente sesión que abre en Septiembre.


تقديم برنامج حفظ الأرشيف المعرض للخطر بلغات أخرى

اللغة العربية

هدفنا هو استقبال طلبات تتميز بجودة عالية من مناطق ودول متعددة حول العالم. لهذا قام أعضاء من فريق برنامجنا مؤخراً بتقديم مجموعة من ندوات الويبناربعدة  لغات. ركَز كل ويبنارعلى التعريف بالبرنامج وتناولَ كيفية كتابة طلب جيد وهذا بطبيعة الحال يزيد احتمالية إنتاج مشروع ناجح. تألفت اللجنة في كل ويبنار من خبراء قاموا سابقاً بإدارة مشاريع مع برنامجنا حيث شاركونا تجربتهم وتحدثوا بشفافية عن التحديات التي واجهتهم وقدوموا نصائحهم. إليكم العرض الذي تم تقديمه باللغة العربية

 

نود لفت انتباهكم إلى أن اللغة المعتمدة لبرنامجنا هي اللغة الإنجليزية ولهذا لا بد أن تكون جميع الطلبات المقدمة مكتوبة باللغة الإنجليزية. يمكنكم الإطلاع على "الدليل الإرشادي"  للحصول على معلومات أكثر، كما يمكنكم التواصل معنا إذا كنتم ترغبون بمناقشة أي جانب من عملية التقديم. نتطلع لاستقبال مجموعة غنية ومتنوعة من الطلبات في الجولة القادمة التي تبدأ في أيلول

 

 

 

29 July 2019

EAP Webinar: Completing a Successful Preliminary Application

The first live EAP webinar “Completing a Successful Preliminary Application” took place on 2 November 2018. Over 40 participants from around the globe took part in an online Q&A session, where EAP staff members and previous grant holders s answered questions about all aspects of the application process. The presentation and Q&As are reproduced below.

EAP webinars in Arabic, Spanish and French took place in June and July 2019. These presentations can be found on the blog posted on 30 July.

Q&A Session

  1. Do endangered archives of film (i.e. motion-picture) reels qualify under EAP? These are 20th-century artefacts, and some even from second half of 20th century, but under threat of destruction and spoilage.

You should consider copyright issues - this can be quite complicated for film. Do also consider Documenting Global Voices, another Arcadia project and note the dates of their competition. You must also think how unique the material is and whether there are copies elsewhere.

  1. How small is a small digitisation project to be considered for a Pilot project? (e.g. we want to digitise about 10,000 lyrics = 10,000 tiff files. is that too big to be considered as a pilot project?!)

It depends on time and budget. This seems a rather large amount of material, but could fit within the Pilot project budget depending on circumstances. Pilots are generally given for projects that last under a year and cost less than £15,000 - if you think you would need more time or money, apply for a Major grant. You may also apply for a Major grant with a smaller budget.

  1. We are working with archaeological records, some of which are unpublished surveys of sites. The publication of this raises some questions, most significantly, the possibility of leading potential looters to unsecured sites. While we’d like all the material to be open, but is there a way keep these records private?"

All EAP material must be made available online - I recommend you contact the other Arcadia funded project based in Oxford – EAMENA – as they focus on archaeology.

  1. What is the policy/EAP recommendations for copyright of orphan works? Are there any concerns especially for non-commercial source material?

The grant holder needs to do the research into copyright of the physical material. We ask for Creative Commons, Non-Commercial licences for all material. For orphan works, the grant of permission form should be signed by the person who owns the material.

  1. If you’re an independent researcher what type of experience are you looking for in regards to applying?

It is possible to do a project as an independent researcher – the experience that would help towards a successful project are digitisation experience, preferably in the field, as well as project management, language ability, understanding of the material, and good budgeting skills. There are, however, several disadvantages – working with a respected partner organisation can benefit the project by providing an institutional framework for project support and administration.

  1. I am keen for technical assistance to help preserve and digitise my very large collection on the Holy Land

Do have a look at Remote Capture (https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/747). It is free to download from Open Book Publishers. I would also suggest that you do not attempt to digitise the whole amount, rather focus on one aspect. You can also budget for training within the grant application. I'd add that the pilot project stage offers the opportunity to trial your digitisation method, perhaps making adjustments/improvements during the major grant stage. During my [Andrew Pearson's] St Helena pilot project, I digitised a relatively small volume of material, but rather I trialled the photography on a variety of document types, to see what worked well with my camera set-up, and what didn't.

  1. What if some of the documents are considered sensitive material by the authorities in the country where the archive is located (in this case Egypt) - for example maps? Could these be exempt from being put online?

You would need to get the appropriate permissions. If these are state archives, then you would need governmental permissions. We only fund material that can go online.

  1. Having located endangered material in private collections across a region, can one independently initiate and carry out a project without recourse to a team at an institution? (Provided all the material is indeed deposited at a relevant local institution, in addition to BL, once it is digitised?)

Please refer to question #6. In addition, you really would need to have significant experience in digitisation and metadata to be able to handle the workload by yourself.

  1. If an independent researcher is partnering with the country archive or museum, whose experience do you detail in the application?

The independent researcher’s experience is what the panel will be assessing.

  1. Do you pay for travel costs of person teaching how to digitise and can you confirm if the equipment stays with the local archive?

Yes, we will pay those costs, as long as they have been detailed in the application and approved by the panel. The equipment does remain in the country for further use.

  1. Could you please confirm if archival material on microfilm (dating from the late 1800s to 1900s) qualify?

Digitising microfilm is quite complicated (the BL outsources this) so look at the feasibility and the uniqueness of the content on the microfilm.

  1. Do EAP grants cover the undertaking of an oral history project that is focused on gathering and recording new material?

We do not pay for interviewing as the main part of a project. We have digitised oral histories that are on a format that is at risk, such as cylinders and tapes.

  1. Does a photographic archive deriving from film reels (especially damaged or partially spoiled ones) qualify for deposit in digital form? i.e. Does it have to be full reels/films for digitisation or parts/excerpts are admissible?

We have not had experience with this to date. If you are applying, you would need to detail the percentage of recoverable material in the application.

  1. When does "pre-modern" period end?

This doesn’t have a single global answer! It will vary with the history and context of different regions. There are two good rules of thumb: the year of independence for countries that were formerly colonies; material that is out of copyright. However, as in the case of photographs, the format can be considered modern but the images refer to a pre-modern period. If you have an questions, please contact the EAP team with information about the collection that you have in mind.

  1. Is a music collection produced in the 20th century qualify, if it’s endangered?

If it is unique and on a problematic format. Think of the other criteria when applying. I suggest that you have a look at the Indian recording labels and Syliphone archive that we have funded.

  1. Do you have suggestions for other funds which might work with endangered 20th century materials?

Yes, a new programme is being set up at UCLA also funded by Arcadia. It is called Documenting Global Voices

  1. At the preliminary stage, what kind of evidence of permissions from collection owners/curators should be included? There is a box for that on the application, but what precisely should appear there?

I would say that submitting formal documentation would only be required at the detailed application stage, but in the preliminary application we want applicants to be aware that the material will go online and it is their responsibility to seek the appropriate permissions.

  1. Is making materials available to scholars the same as making them available to the public? Some archives depend on search fees for funding.

The goal of the EAP is to save endangered archival material and make them open available for research. This focus means that some projects, while otherwise excellent, may not be a good fit for the programme. The British Library will make the outputs of projects openly available for research by scholars and others. This is a key requirement. It does not, however, mean that the local archive cannot provide a priced service that includes access to the content or is driven by its metadata. Such services exist in many domains.

  1. On the project team: Should we be concerned if the largest part of our budget turns out to be salaries for a team (in my case, around 10 people, for example)?

For the EAP project based on Nevis, which used two local staff, that salaries formed the largest single element of the grant. In the past, the Panel have asked applicants to re-budget if they felt that the costs were prohibitive. Also, you should note that if the archive is housed at the host institution, we expect some contribution in-kind. Often this means the salaries of existing permanent staff employed by the host institution.

  1. It says in the application instructions that you do not allow costs for conservation. What if you have documents that require conservation before digitisation?

We cover preservation (archival boxing, Melinex sleeves, dehumidifiers, etc.) to prevent further deterioration, but sadly not conservation. I think if the material needs work of this sort, I suggest you look for other funding before applying to EAP.

  1. When you say that detailed cataloguing should not be part of the project, does this also include database recording for the documents?

You must submit metadata as part of your project outputs. There is a template of the spreadsheet that we use available on the website. The level of description depends on the type of material being digitised, for example, with manuscripts we would expect a description at volume level (file level) and not at page level, but for photographs we would expect a description for each photograph (item level). We plan on introducing webinars for current grant holders regarding cataloguing standards.

  1. Could you please elucidate what differentiates an Area from a Major grant in terms of the amount of material that needs to be digitised? (Reference to paper-based archival material)

There is a considerable range of the amount of material that is digitised in Major grants. We have seen successful Major grants that have produced a few tens of thousands up through nearly a million. In recent years, the average amount of content is about 60K images per project year with 50% of projects delivering between 20K and 120K images per project year (ie, a 2-year project might deliver between 40K and 240K images). The variation partly due to the difficult of local conditions, access, and nature of materials. For example, good quality bound ledgers can be processed quickly and efficiently. Crumbling damaged manuscripts must be handled with great care. That being said, we would expect an Area grant to produce material roughly in proportion to a Major grant, and perhaps derive some economies of scale. So perhaps 60-360K images per project year would be likely.

  1. Is it typically in the range of a pilot project to create a project website that serves the local community (in the local language, mobile-first, designed to be accessible with patchy internet connections)?

Typically not for a pilot project. In cases that it is considered particularly important, a modest contribution could be made toward it. We look to the local archival partner to do much of this though.

  1. Is any training support offered to applicants as a part of this grant?

Look at our website to see if there has been a recent project near to where your proposal is based. The EAP office may be able to put you in touch with someone with local experience which may be useful. We also plan on having future webinars covering various topics. The handbook Remote Capture is also a good resource.

  1. Is EAP giving any legal support against illicit traffic of archival materials? Is there any guidance?

This is not within the scope of EAP. Our ethos is that the material stays in the country of origin and that is why the digitisation is done in situ.

  1. On the preliminary application under ‘Project People and Organisations’, if applying through a host institution, there is no space to describe the experience and past achievements of the principal applicant or team? How do you gauge if the principal investigators have the experience to carry out the project? Is it okay for the principal applicant to complete Q10c and Q10d even if applying through the applicants host institution?

This is dealt with in more depth at the detailed application stage. In the preliminary application, if you are employed by the Host Institution, you only have to answer Question 9.

  1. I thought to apply for a pilot project for: getting permissions from three archives I am in touch with; evaluating the volume and character (hand-written/lithographs/etc.) of the manuscripts applicable for the major project; locating more archives - public and private - that I know are there; putting up the team of technicians and scholars to work for a major project. Does that make sense? Should I include portable scanner to digitise sample texts?

This is a classic Pilot project. Since you mentioned you are looking at manuscripts, a portable scanner would not be appropriate, you would need a camera and portable tripod. Look at the Digital Appendices for Remote Capture, which suggests model types.

  1. Is there any limitation as to the country of main applicant?

No, the important thing is where the material is located.

  1. What is the required form of indicating consent / permission from foreign partners? A written and signed letter of consent in their language and then a translation? Will you honour informal translations or does it have to be a legally binding translation?

As part of the detailed application, we have Grant of Permission forms thatyou are welcome to translate when showing them to foreign partners, but the English version would need to be signed and returned to the EAP office.

  1. What type of organisations/archival partners do not qualify as local institutions? For example: does a local non-profit with a collection of relevant material qualify?

It must be a non-commercial institution, it sounds as if the organisation you have in mind would qualify.

  1. I am interested about how to discern what kind of project for which to apply. We have a website partially constructed. We are a local archive in Serowe, but our internet access is tenuous. We would probably need help make the archival material available from Serowe.

Please refer to Question 23.

  1. Thank you for your helpful advice.... Unfortunately I don't think my archive is eligible for the EAP. Does the British library have a service or a contact I can approach for advice on rehoming a modern archive?

Feel free to contact Jody.butterworth@bl.uk, also take a look at the Documenting Global Voices programme.

  1. Can we email individual panellists? We are working in Antigua and would love to talk to Andy.

I'm sure Andy would be glad to provide help. Please email endangeredarchives@bl.uk and we'll pass your request on to him.

  1. Among the accepted applications, is there a typical ratio - are the grants equally distributed among pilot, major and area, or is there a typical distribution in the rate of success?

This is the first time we are offering the area grant. The distribution varies year to year. To date we have had 220 major projects and 130 pilot projects.

  1. I have a question relating specifically to a collection of amateur films (travelogues and documentaries). This is the only surviving collection in the country of origin, so it will be quite valuable to researchers because it will dispel myths about pre-industrial filmmaking in this country. The owner transferred the rights to a team of filmmakers before passing away, but they do not have a way to properly store and digitise them. My question, more specifically, is whether I can submit an application to rescue these films, even though I don’t reside in the country of origin? I should add that this country doesn’t have the institutional framework or infrastructure to pursue this. The team has tried to find a way forward unsuccessfully, but I am able to bring this to fruition from Canada.

We have had several projects where the applicant is outside the country of origin, but it would be important for at least one of the rights owners to be a co-applicant. If you are invited to the detailed application, you would be strongly advised to include the grant of permission forms signed by all of the team members (copyright owners).

  1. In the country of origin there is no institutional framework that can administer the type of collection that needs to be rescued/digitised (all options have been exhausted). Can it be administered from a different country, and then share the digitized archives with the country of origin?

Please refer to question 35.