The World’s Memory

Britain is often criticised for its colonial collecting of artefacts, often claimed to be theft under another name, but nobody else – possibly barring the Americans- is doing as much to preserve valuable artefacts from the past. In the forefront of this is the wonderful British Library with its increasing open access online presence. This is by Tom Overton in the present New Statesman:

“How much history did Isis burn in Mosul’s central library earlier this year? It seems grimly appropriate that it is difficult to find evidence to verify the worst estimates of 1,500 manuscripts and 100,000 books destroyed.

We are perhaps more used to states marking their territory by taking custody of the archives of weaker powers, even when that, in effect, amounts to kidnap. The British Library has material from all over the world collected during the days of empire; by 1979, however, Philip Larkin, a librarian as well as a poet, was tryng to stop the flow of British literary manuscripts to the US.

Taking custody isn’t always a protective measure. Israel holds 6,000 Palestinian books and manuscripts collected from western Jerusalem after its victory in the 1948 war, but destroyed 24,000 it considered irrelevant or hostile.

According to the book From Dust to Digital, published in February to mark the tenth anniversary of he British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), we now live in a “post-custodial” age. The programme removes nothing from tis original location,, so communities retain the ability to tell their own histories. Instead, money from the charitable Arcadia Fund is used to give grants to help people digitise at-risk or inaccessible material; the scanned images then go to the nearest possible institution and on to the Endangered Archives website (eap.bl.uk). [One of the documents is a ] 19th century copy of an Islamic poem , one of “four million individual windows to the human past” gathered over the past decade: a photoshopping together of two of the 87,658 individual photographs of manuscripts taken in the library of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

If the numbers are difficult to comprehend so is the history they reflect.because the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam overlay it at different angles, the land around the library is perhaps the most fought over in the world. In 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, a few metres away, triggered the 5 year long Second Intifada, which killed as many as 4,000 people.

Al-Aqsa’a collection of Islamic manuscripts is one of hemost important inthe world, according to Unesco. Its newspaper archives also show the Palestinian perspective on the rising numbers of Jewish settlers, the 1917 Balfour Declaration in suppport of a Jewish state, British control between 1917 and 1948 and what Palestinians call al-Naqba (“the catastrophe”): the 1948 conflict that passed most of the area into Israeli control. Now they can browse its library from anywhere with an internet connection. Although the mosque is administered by a Jordanian trust, Palestinians can gain access to it only with a permit – or, during one of the many outbreaks of violence, not at all.

So far, the EAP has given out £6m in 244 grants and has received images of a vast compendium of medieaval Jewish life known as the Cairo Genizah, beautiful illuminated manuscripts by Ethiopian Christians, ethnographic photographs of Soviet Siberia and scrolls that survived the annihilation of the northern Chinese Tangut people in the 13th century. There has been nothing, as yet, from Iraq. For much of the world, the “British” in the project’s title contradicts the “post-custodial” ideal.

“If this is the memory of the world”, the EAP argues, “the world needs [to be able] to access it.” Accordingly, all of the material is freely available, and captioned in 5 languages. It’s easy to get carried away; the UN estimates that ony 40% of the world’s population has access to the internet, and, whatever teh precautions, we have no way of knowing how long these images will outlast their physical counterparts. Yet, for the foreseeable future, the EAP represents a new kind of archive – a utopian monument to curiosity.”

Whilst all this sounds wonderful, archivists are already warning that digitization is no guarantee of longevity as technology is constantly changing, so this will only be an archive for the future if some form of perpetual software is developed to store it for perpetutity.

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