Father Columba Stewart on Digitizing Endangered Manuscripts, Provisional Metadata, and Hope

This year’s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities was delivered on October 7 by Father Columba Stewart, OSB—a Benedictine monk, scholar of early religions, and executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN. Stewart has spent the past 15 years working to digitize documents at risk of theft, damage, and destruction due to war, regime change, or climate instability in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and South Asia.

Fr Columba Stewart arms crossed
Fr. Columba Stewart
Photo Credit: Guytano Magno

This year’s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities was delivered on October 7 by Father Columba Stewart, OSB—a Benedictine monk, scholar of early religions, and executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN. Stewart has spent the past 15 years working to digitize documents at risk of theft, damage, and destruction due to war, regime change, or climate instability in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and South Asia.

In partnership with local religious leaders and government authorities, Stewart enlists community members and cultural institutions to secure and photograph endangered historic manuscripts and books—secular as well as religious—and make the images accessible on HMML’s website and the VHMML online reading room. Image processing is done by local residents, often trained by HMML, who are paid for their work. Stewart has traveled to Syria, Iraq, and the Balkans, and has worked with partners in Mali to digitize more than 250,000 ancient Islamic texts rescued from Timbuktu. Recent efforts in Iraq have been directed at saving manuscripts threatened by ISIS.

In the lecture, titled “Cultural Heritage Present and Future: A Benedictine Monk’s Long View,” Stewart spoke of how his efforts are informed by Benedictine tradition. “At its best, that monastic ‘stability’ frees the mind to roam widely and to make unexpected applications of what is found,” he said—an idea firmly aligned with the work of librarianship, preservation, and access. (A video of the lecture is available NEH’s Facebook page, starting at 40:00.) LJ caught up with Stewart shortly afterward to talk about his work.

LJ : How do you find the material you want to photograph?

Fr. Columba Stewart: The actual determination of a location depends on intelligence gathering—regions we think are significant, what we can find out. In other cases it comes out of left field; somebody comes to us with a proposal or opportunity that hadn't been on our screen, but they have connections and influence and can open the door.

We try to emphasize collections that are at risk or important for scholars, but are inaccessible. That doesn't necessarily mean conflict, but [that] they're kept by an institution or community that isn't set up to be a research library.

Are you able to get to places on short notice?

We can—we got involved in Mali very quickly when we started the Timbuktu work. We're small and nimble, and usually have enough resources on hand to start something, even if we have to go knock on doors to get funding to keep it going. We can respond pretty quickly if there's an urgent need or time-bounded opportunity.

How are you received by the people whose cultural heritage materials you’re digitizing?

Generally, people are hospitable. We normally have [an] introducer or influencer from the community to help open the door, rather than our showing up and saying, “Show us your stuff.”

You have to build a relationship of trust. I think the academic affiliation of our project helps—we're not a commercial enterprise. And I think the Benedictine thing signifies even to Muslims. It's a way of underscoring that we really are not for profit, and might have some shared values—even if we have theological differences, we're people of tradition.

What is the field process like?

We meet with the local community, the bishop, or the university librarian, depending on context; explain how we do things; [and] come to an agreement. We sign a contract, and then provide equipment, training, and, typically, funding to pay the technicians.

We use local people who may already be employees, if [the material is] in an institution, or trusted members of the community. [They] handle and digitize their own cultural heritage. That's an important part, because it upends the suspicious assumptions some communities rightfully have that if you're a foreigner coming in you want to take their stuff, as opposed to working with them to protect it.

Most of our systems [use] simpler workflow and setups than you would find in a major Western library that has lots of money, although we train all of our workers how to handle things, position them, [and] work with tight bindings or loose bindings, as they image them. We give them a kind of out-of-the-box studio.

We'll do fragments, but we don't do things where the digitization process would damage it. So many things are just so fragile, they would turn to dust if you tried to open them. People are commonsensical on the ground. They know the difference. We give a very basic training on handling and storage. We are not a conservation project. We can put people in contact with a professional conservator, and we'll sometimes do a formal conservation assessment before we begin. It depends on circumstances and how much lead time we have, given what may be happening around that place.

The digital images are put on hard drives. Periodically they send them to us, or to our office in Beirut, for pre-scanning. Once [the images] get here we go through the archiving steps for multiple copies, multiple locations—digital hygiene. Then we put them in the online system for catalogers to work on.

Do the local technicians keep copies?

They get a copy of everything. It's their stuff. There really aren't commercial uses, but they have the commercial rights by contract. We have the right to put it online for scholarly use, but publication of images typically requires their permission. So they hold onto certain uses of the images while granting free access online for the sake of research.

In most cases they don't have the technical infrastructure to do much with the images. In rare cases they might use full-res images for on-site access, but even that's beyond the capacity of most places. They're trusting us to handle that side of things, including long-term archiving and the ability to get a replacement set of images should they plug the hard drive back in and realize it doesn't work anymore.

What kind of metadata do the images arrive with?

They typically come in with some field metadata. That could be bare bones—measurements, number of folios, possibly a provisional title, a shelf mark, or a project code number. In other cases, there's a little more local expertise and they can provide more detail—a title and author, even a date. We have our cataloging team turn that into metadata that conforms to our standards in the VHMML online system.

We use Library of Congress authorities where they exist. We're working on a new project to organize the authorities we've created for the Eastern Christian collections and the Islamic collections, particularly things from West Africa, which are not mainstream Islam, make them available if the Library of Congress wants to work with it to create [its] style of authorities

What is the state of the institutions you’re working with?

It all depends on context. In places like Lebanon, highly sophisticated—you have the American University in Beirut, the University of St. Joseph, the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik. They've all got top flight libraries, fully trained professional librarians. The problem in places like Iraq and Syria is that where they may have had that kind of professional infrastructure, it's been so battered, sometimes literally, and people displaced, that there's a gap. One can only hope that stability and peace will enable them to restore that professional sector.

In some cases, like Mosul University, the library was destroyed. So they're starting from scratch, and I hope the librarians are still around. I have heard that the handful of books that survived were retrieved. They're trying to start over. Those are the real heroes of librarianship—people who guard things and hide them, people who bring them back out, people who try to revive a working library.

What has surprised you in the course of your work?

The positive: working with Muslim institutions and communities, whether in the Middle East, West Africa, or South Asia. It's been very interesting and gratifying to see how well that's gone, and how we've found like-minded people who share a humanist vision of things. That makes it possible to cooperate.

The negative is the continuing series of explosions and implosions across the Middle East. The situation in West Africa remains tenuous—Mali could go up any minute. We work with Muslim communities in North India and they're feeling very precarious, given what's happening with the Indian political scene and the recent increase of tensions with Pakistan. These unpredictable things make it complicated, and have been personally devastating—people we worked with who were killed, institutions destroyed, collections moved and hidden. That's not typical librarianship, but that's the reality that we face.

Where will you go next? How do you decide?

We're still very active in West Africa, and I'll be going there in December. We have a new project in partnership with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, in Kathmandu, Nepal. This is a new growing edge for us, working with Buddhist and Hindu materials. We started in Southwest India with Christian stuff, then moved to North India with Muslim stuff, because its Persian Urdu tradition is coming from the Middle East, Afghanistan—and then we're right next door to Nepal, so why not start to work on that?

You start to get an interesting map of how things move, the flow of text, intellectual exchanges, these little pockets of culture and learning that were visited by travelers ancient and modern. Sometimes I talk about Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Benjamin of Tudela—these guys are going all over the place and having contact with these cultures, and in a sense we're replicating that notion—just as people move, ideas move, and with people and ideas so go the manuscripts.

How can people get involved?

They can learn more, explore our websites. Even for people who don't read Syriac or Arabic, there are nice showcased collections they can browse and get a sense of. We do some public programming, trying to take that more widely beyond our geographical region. We're very active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—there's a lot of both eye candy and substance. Those accounts also touch on things from rare book collections.

Obviously we look for financial support. We have a lot of very small donors, and love to welcome new people who support us even in a modest way.

We occasionally have volunteer opportunities but we're small, so that really depends on having a project that matches somebody's expertise.

How do people doing the kind of work we do hold on to hope?

I was astonished by the reaction [to] this lecture. People are desperate to hear a message that is hopeful. Librarians and people in the humanities, specifically, because of the funding issues; people more generally because of the political climate, whichever side of the aisle you're on—it's become so poisonous. And then the geopolitical situation, Brexit happening, Syria now with Turkey going in—everywhere you look it's bleak, it's messy, and it's ugly. How do we hold on to the things that give us hope for human flourishing and understanding?

Seeing what can happen when you can connect people with information that will help them take a step ahead—either for personal understanding or advancing their education or career—that's what it's all about. You could say that our mission is to complicate the worldview of people. If librarians give up, we're all in trouble.

Author Image
Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

amanda Olivier

As an ex-librarian, I am currently busy indexing the black and white image collection and assist many authors in finding text and images from Die Burger Newspaper which was the runner up from Die Patriot, the first Afrikaans newspaper in Southern Africa. It is only my wish to obtain funds to build the content into a website with the full history of South Africa made available to all educational institutions.

Posted : Oct 19, 2019 06:38



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing