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Backing Up History

A wealth of cultural heritage is hidden in government and private archives across the nation. No single museum has enough space to showcase it all, but the internet does.
By Kate Durham
Just past the simple wooden table that serves as Dar El Kotob’s reception area, there are two sets of shelves holding sheafs of papers bundled in plastic sheaths. They seem out of place in this hallway, with its scuffed tiles, walls in need of painting and government employees scurrying past on their way to tend to the national library and national archives. They are more out of place than I realize: These papers are just a fraction of the volumes that survived December’s fire at the Institut d’Egypt.

If nothing else, the fire was a reminder of how fragile our heritage can be. According to Dr. Zain Abd ElHady, former chairman of Dar El Kotob, more than half of the scientific NGO’s collection of nearly 200,000 rare books and journals were completely destroyed — but not completely lost. Many of the titles exist in other libraries and private collections either as physical copies, microfilm and increasingly in digital format. In fact, 100 titles from the Institut d’Egypt collection already rest on the virtual shelves of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Digital Assets Repository (DAR).

With more than six millennia of history, Egypt has hundreds of millions of documents — to say nothing of photographs, audio and video recordings — languishing in store rooms across the country, rarely seen or appreciated except by the most dedicated researchers. Hidden in government and private archives throughout the nation are treasures ranging from early Qu’rans and medieval treatises on science and medicine to the personal notes of pioneering Egyptian architects and film stars. No museum has enough space to showcase it all, but the internet does.

In the past decade, there has been a push to bring digital archives online for public access. From global compilations such as the Universal Digital Library and the World Digital Library to topic-specific collections such as Wellcome Trust’s history of medicine, international organizations are turning to Egypt not just for content but technical expertise in digitizing Arabic language material. With the successful launch of these international archives, Egyptian institutions are exploring how to get their own collections into the spotlight.

Dar El Kotob: The State Shelves
Encompassing both the national library and archives, Dar El Kotob has 110 million items in a collection that truly spans the nation’s history, from ancient documents on papyrus to phonograph recordings of 20th-century music performances.

When the US Library of Congress (LOC) and UNESCO were looking for partners to launch the World Digital Library (WDL), a website that presents images of sources for understanding the history of humanity, Dar El Kotob was a logical choice.

“Its collection has been pretty deep, and Egypt as a whole, of course, has all these rich repositories,” says William Kopycki, LOC’s Cairo-based field director. “So you can’t say [Dar El Kotob] is very famous for its astronomy manuscripts, no, or it’s famous for maps, no. It’s really everything. And researchers know that this library just contains things you cannot find anywhere else in the region.”

Dar El Kotob signed on to the WDL in 2006 as one of the founding partners, and the LOC helped round up donors to provide the scanner, software and training needed to get the project started. To date, Dar El Kotob has delivered 126 digitized manuscripts to the project, 31 of which have been processed and published on the WDL website.

The WDL training has been put to good use, and Dar El Kotob now has three separate digitization projects — one dealing with the archives, one for manuscripts, and one for rare books. With so much material to work with, demand determines what gets done first.

“We digitize per request or per operation because in libraries, you can’t digitize everything. My priorities are MS, maps and archives,” says Abd ElHady.

Dar El Kotob now has 10 scanners, distributed among the national archives building, the national library building and the Bab El Khalq building, which houses about 10,000 manuscripts. It’s a small-scale project compared to the size of the collection, but Abd ElHady, who left Dar El Kotob shortly after being interviewed for this article, had larger issues to contend with, such as improving pay and physical working conditions for the institution’s staff.

A product of 1960s architecture, the Corniche facility clearly needs the makeover. The WDL project scanner and computer take up a corner of an office with a secondhand couch and a threadbare carpet. A team of four people, mostly library science graduates and IT engineers, scan the materials and enter the associated descriptive information or metadata required to meet WDL standards.

Abd ElHady hopes that the digitizing projects can play a role in refurbishing Dar El Kotob, with a newly redesigned website to generate income.

“I finished the second version of Dar El Kotob’s website and we will publish soon in French and English. We finished the Arabic version, and every six months there will be a new version for the websites. Also, I am trying to automate all the operations of Dar El Kotob. I already got 400 computers for all the workers, and we already have [an online library catalog] system called Symphony.”

Thus far, there are 800,000 Arabic titles cataloged in the online system, and 30,000 books, MS, maps available in digitized form to put on the public catalog. Before the website goes live, he says, “We have to work with the Ministry of Communications to make an e-commerce system for this. Anyone can search and download, but after paying.”

With its vast collection and limited resources, the environment is ripe for Dar El Kotob to seek out more digitization partnerships similar to the WDL. Still, Abd ElHady is hesitant to overextend the institution. “I have existing agreements with [several] parties, but I think I have to concentrate my efforts with LOC and Thesaurus Islamicus. Now I am in the process [of setting up an] agreement with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.”

Abd ElHady admits Dar El Kotob has to overcome a culture of institutional jealousy before it can enter a meaningful collaboration with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), a recognized pioneer in digitizing Arabic language materials for interactive text searches.

“The problem was that the previous regime dealt with the Alexandrina Library as the National Library of Egypt. That’s not true. The National Library of Egypt is here in Cairo. But I have to cooperate with the Library of Alexandrina because they have a lot of money, they have a lot of experience, of course, and they have a lot of international relations. So I think we have to work together.”

Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The Digital Giant
Sometimes it pays to be the newcomer. Established by presidential decree, the BA officially opened 10 years ago to revive Alexandria as an intellectual beacon. Despite its quasi-governmental status, BA is a non-profit institution with an budget that covers one-third of its acquisitions; the rest of the collection comes from donations or deposits of new publications. That called for a creative approach to how it amassed content.

“Since the library would never acquire the same number of physical books as the Library of Congress, for example, it was decided that we should excel in the digital side of the library environment,” says Youssef Bassily, BA’s director of institutional repositories and integrated library systems. “We then found out that there wasn’t much expertise in Arabic at all.”

At the time, there were maybe two or three software titles that could perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on the curvy, dot-speckled Arabic script. Bassily continues, “So we decided to excel in that as well, and to become some kind of reference in dealing with Arabic in general.”

Starting with primarily out-of-copyright books from its own collection, BA developed the Digital Assets Repository (DAR), which allows users to search for and read books on the internet. There are currently 225,000 titles in DAR, 179,000 of them in Arabic.

In 2004, BA joined Carnegie Mellon’s Million Book Project to scan Arabic language books for the fledgling online collection that eventually grew into the Universal Digital Library. “Our role was to build some kind of digitization lab that would contribute to the main target of reaching 1 million digitized books in different languages,” Bassily explains.

In addition to contributing books, the BA team also helped apply OCR and text-search functionality to books from other partners. In exchange, BA kept a digitized copy for its own collection.

BA was a recognized pioneer in Arabic-language digitization by the time the WDL project started coalescing. In 2007, the library signed on as a founding partner, providing not only content but technical expertise.

“The BA has advised us on the design and functionality of the Arabic version of the WDL,” says Michelle Rago, product manager for the WDL. “We are currently working with the BA on developing a full-text search feature as well.”

BA’s ICT team has developed a sophisticated search engine that allows users to search not only for specific Arabic or English words, for example “play,” but also variants of the word, such as “playground, player.”

Bassily says the library is focusing largely on digitizing the modern history of Egypt. In two signature projects, BA digitized and launched websites for the Description de l’Egypte and L’Art Arabe, a 19th-century work documenting Islamic monuments. The library contributed a digital copy of Description de l’Egypte to the WDL.

The library also has multimedia websites dedicated to general history, the Suez Canal and past presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

BA’s commitment to digitization is reflected in the resources dedicated to the ICT and digitization lab. There are about 35 IT engineers, divvied up to support specific projects; and 120 people working in two shifts in the digitization lab. Set up with assistance from Carnegie Mellon as part of the Million Book project, the Digitization Lab has 14 scanners of varying sizes. Banks of computers are manned by teams proofreading and correcting errors in the OCR-extracted text.

The ICT and Digitization Lab handles only the technical end of the process. To make the digital archives meaningful and searchable, the librarians and other content specialists evaluate and organize the collections to be digitized and supply the metadata.

The DAR has allowed BA to set up virtual branches in El Minya University and El Gouna; a bank of computers at each site give visitors full access to BA services and resources. Because DAR includes books that are still in copyright, the BA can only offer limited access online for those accessing the system outside the library’s premises.

The BA is constantly seeking new international and local partnerships to expand their collections.

“History tells us that the Library of Alexandria tried to have a copy of everything that was published worldwide,” says Bassily. “Since Alexandria was situated on the trade lines, the standard trade lines in the Old World, it was easy. All the ships are coming through Egypt, so you can deposit a copy of the book at the library. The library is trying to do this in digital form.”

CULTNAT: Catching Up Online
Talk to any library trying to digitize its collection, and the same name comes up again and again: CULTNAT. Researchers with the Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage work with government and private institutions and individuals to scan manuscripts and photos, and record video and audio of live performances. Different projects address folklore traditions, photography, archeological sites, architecture, Egypt’s flora and fauna, famous singers and scientific manuscripts. But you’ll find it challenging to find something on the CULTNAT website.

“Even with all of this digitization that’s happened, we don’t really have an online presence,” says Heba Farida, program coordinator for CULTNAT’s Photographic Memory of Egypt.

Established by presidential decree in 2000 and affiliated with the BA since 2003, CULTNAT was established to use information and multimedia technology in the documentation of cultural and natural heritage. It is not a library or archive in that it has no physical collection of its own; it only documents the nation’s heritage in digital format. The data it collects is used in books, DVDs and multimedia presentations. CULTNAT created some of the shows at the BA Planetarium, and it won a patent for Culturama, a 180-degree projection system for interactive multimedia presentations about Egyptian heritage.

“What they’ve done is basically digitized all of these artifacts and things, and so they use it to produce some kind of product. But as an archive, a searchable archive, there’s been no attention paid to that,” Farid says. “So you’ll find that the archive does not exist as a holistic entity; it’s still parceled out, each belonging to each program that created it in the first place.”

Projects involving international cooperation have a prominent web presence. CULTNAT’s Eternal Egypt, a partnership with IBM, is an award-winning interactive website offering webcam views, 3D virtual tours, images and explanations of Egypt’s heritage sites and artifacts. CULTNAT is also working with the International Committee for Egyptology on an ever-growing Global Egyptian Museum website, trying to locate and display every Egyptian artifact held in museums around the world.

For the other projects, visitors must dig three layers into CULTNAT’s main webpage to find the applications that allow them to search digital archives for a specific program. At the center’s premises in Smart Village, the Microgallery has computer terminals showcasing each program.

“Accessibility was not a priority from the beginning.[…] By not having access, public access, to the information, that means you are in control of it and you are reproducing it in a display like books or Culturama or planetarium movies,” Farid notes. “You’re […] reproducing this data in a way that’s consumable and for a price.”

While CULTNAT gets some financial support from Dar El Kotob and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, many of the individual projects rely heavily on outside donors.

Farid explains that CULTNAT is currently looking into unifying its data. “This idea here to link all isolated databases that are not online, and make all that data accessible through one interface. Making it online is another step.”

There are a number of challenges: CULTNAT has some 70 databases in different formats, then it has to address the media banks containing the digital images, videos, audios and text related to each project. Only then can organizers create a theoretical framework for a holistic archive and how it can be accessed. Farid says no real deadline has been set for this project.

“The criticism we receive,” she notes, “is that we are full of potential, yet not visible.”

Standalone project-specific websites is one way to increase that visibility. Farid’s Photographic Memory of Egypt program is launching a website in October, in conjunction with exhibitions and other events. Farid notes that because CULTNAT works with multiple sources and researchers, a project website offers visitors not just a digital library, but also a survey of the physical collections around the country, encouraging more collaboration.

Long focused on presentation technology, CULTNAT is starting to embrace the advantages of accessibility. “Online has kind of been pushed to the side,” Farid says, “now we’re starting to come back to it.”

AUC: Digital Archives 101
In the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Regional Architecture Collections room, the curator pulls out a wide drawer filled with scraps of paper, a fraction of about 500 Hassan Fathy architectural drawings that need to be identified and associated with one of his projects. The complete collection of Fathy’s plans, numbering about 6,000, fill 10 drawers; the renowned Egyptian architect’s personal archive also includes 15,000 photos and thousands of documents.

This vast collection is just one small reason why Carolyn Runyon’s job as AUC’s only digital collections archivist is challenging. Hired a year ago, Runyon arrived a week before the January 25 Revolution broke out. When she was finally able to report for work, the Rare Books and Special Collections Library (RBSCL) had taken on a new mission: archiving history as it was happening.

The University on the Square project — compiling oral histories and revolution-related video, photos and art — has occupied much of Runyon’s time since.

“We were just so inundated with stuff from the University on the Square that we are slowly getting around to stuff what I was hired in January 2011 to do, which is digitize Rare Books and Manuscripts collections,” Runyon says, laughing.

According to Stephen Urgola, university archivist and director of records management, AUC has been digitizing since the late 1990s. “The first digitizing project was actually an intervention for preservation,” Urgola says. “Van Leo’s collection has a lot of [photographic] negatives and a number of them were, just by the nature of the plastic base of the negatives, they were deteriorating.”

The RBSCL launched a scanning project to capture the images before the negatives decayed further. Over the years, other older photo collections were digitized as time and money permitted, but the digitized material was never made public. Urgola explains. “The platform was the issue.”

Realizing its digitized materials should be made accessible, in 2009, the university launched its Digital Archive and Research (DAR) Repository to provide open access to scholarly work produced by AUC students and faculty. The platform also became the home for a handful of images from the Hassan Fathy collection.

““The University on the Square project sort of forced us to reimagine how we were doing digital collections and how we were managing all of this stuff,” Runyon says. “We didn’t have the right platforms to present it, so we created the Rare Books and Special Collections Digital Library […] and that’s provided us with the tech support we really need to get going on these larger scale digitization projects like Bibliotheca is doing.”

The architectural drawings from the Ramses Wissa Wassef collection were the first to be uploaded to the new platform; Fathy’s collections will gradually migrate there.

The RBSCL team has the daunting task of prioritizing what to digitize first. While a committee helps determine value and relevance of specific items within a large collection, Urgola notes “The usage oftentimes drives the digitizing.” Images that fill research requests generally get scanned first and added to the online collection.

Donor wishes may also drive the process. “To acquire the Wissa Wassef collection, for example, the quid pro quo from the family was to get a set of digital images,” Urgola explains. “So we had to digitize it to get the hard copy.”

Preservation is also a key consideration. The 93-year-old university documents its activities using the technology of the day. “We’ve got audio media, we’ve got VHS tapes […] of lecturers who came, commencements, student art performances. VHS tapes —where are you going to get a VCR? Where is that tape going to play in 10 years?” Urgola adds. “So it’s really important for us to capture that audiovisual media as soon as we can to preserve it.”

In addition to rare books and university records, the RBSCL has managed to acquire 50 personal archives from architects, photographers, activists, scholars and other notable personalities.

“That’s what I think makes us unique, these personal papers collections,” Urgola says. A collection usually encompasses not just the person’s professional work, but also letters, personal photographs, and other items providing insight into the time period.

“The backlog of stuff to be digitized is so overwhelming that I think anywhere we start is good enough right now,” says Runyon. “I think we can choose to be pickier later. Right now there’s just so much that we can be digitizing that we’re overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.”

The RBSCL digitization project has a couple of small scanners inhouse and outsources its oversized or special jobs. But Runyon points out that it’s not the technology that drives the digital library. “It’s really more about getting the people to do the descriptive work, to add that really rich content that makes it findable and puts it into context,” she says. “That’s the important work. It’s not as much about actually capturing the image.”

Runyon says that descriptive work is what makes a digital archive “highly Google-able,” a key goal of any institution that wants to showcase its collections.

“That’s where I see the real benefit,” she says. “Otherwise, how is that researcher in the States who’s learning about Wissa Wassef going to find information about or even know that AUC might have his research papers?”

Urgola notes that providing digital images also saves wear and tear from handling the original, especially with fragile and awkward sized documents. “[Digitizing] is not intended to replace the original items by any means. You don’t digitize so you can discard stuff,” he says. “There’s the inherent value to the physical item.”

A digital archive is also not meant to replace a library’s human staff. “You can’t minimize the importance of the curatorial aspect,” Urgola says, “the person who knows the collection being there and having discussions [with the researcher].” For example, the RBSCL has personal papers from people who ran in the same social circles; a curator can identify where a topic is covered by multiple collections.

For institutions with extensive collections, there is one recurring theme: A digital archive will never be comprehensive. While its collection is miniscule compared to Dar El Kotob, the RBSCL currently houses 25,000 books, 200,000 photographs and 2,400 linear feet (731 meters) of archival material and manuscripts.

“My goal is to create as representative a sample as I can of the holdings of the library itself. So I want a little bit of something from everybody’s area,” Runyon says. “You know, the digital collection […] doesn’t have to be every single piece of paper that has been created by somebody, because it’s simply too much work. We can’t actually do that, it’s not an attainable goal at this point.” 

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