A race against time: manuscripts and digital preservation

A conversation with Father Columba Stewart, OSB, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (Collegeville, Minnesota) and Dr. Beth Harris

Additional resources:

“The Monk Who Saves Manuscripts From ISIS” (The Atlantic, February 23, 2017)

Hill Museum and Manuscript Library

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] I’m sitting in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey and University here in Collegeville, Minnesota. This is an amazing collection. The work that you do here to digitally preserve manuscripts is very important. We’ve got one manuscript out.

Father Columba Stewart: [0:30] We have before us a 14th-century manuscript from Egypt. This is unusual for us because most of our collection is microfilm or digital images, the principle being that we leave manuscripts in place, which is what we do now in the cultural heritage world, and make images of them that we can then share online with scholars around the world.

[0:46] That’s a way of partnering with communities which have kept these precious historical objects for many centuries, often at great cost to themselves.

Dr. Harris: [0:50] In the colonial era, we might have taken the manuscripts, brought them back to Western Europe. But now we’re leaving these important objects in the places that they were made.

Father Stewart: [1:00] So when we think of the British Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, these are amazing libraries. Most of the manuscripts that are in them are items which were collected in the 18th and 19th century, by people who would go shopping in places where poverty or lack of understanding of what some of these materials were encouraged people to say, “sure, take them,” and then they got much-needed money or other resources.

[1:26] Of course, now things are very different. There are cultural heritage communities, organizations, and governmental offices dedicated to caring for these in a way that just didn’t exist in previous times.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] Often books, manuscripts, antiquities were collected with no thought to the effects of removing them from their source communities.

Father Stewart: [1:43] There was a sense that the non-European, the non-Western person, who might belong to an ancient but different religious tradition, was not capable or sophisticated enough to care for and appreciate these items. But at the same time, they had a very deep cultural and often linguistic connection with these items that is impossible for an outsider to replicate.

Dr. Harris: [2:04] Monasteries have been in the work of preserving manuscripts and making copies of manuscripts for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Father Stewart: [2:10] Everyone has a caricature of the medieval monks copying manuscripts. There were points, particularly in the early Middle Ages, where continuing the great chain of transmission of learning was at risk. Thanks to the monasteries, when social structures and governments were collapsing, the chain continued.

[2:27] We’ve always done it because monasteries are places that have readers. Every monk’s supposed to do sacred reading every day. It wasn’t just the Bible, but it was commentaries, theological works, philosophical texts that helped you understand theological writing, scientific works, mathematics.

[0:00] This idea that universal knowledge was really important, even for the monastic culture.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] Now we’re preserving and continuing that tradition by digitizing these manuscripts, but making them available to a much wider audience.

Father Stewart: [2:56] We go to a place and we photograph every manuscript in the library. Just as early monks had this notion of universal culture, we too feel that every handwritten book in a library is worthy of digitization. We can’t decide now, but somebody a hundred years from now is going to find it really interesting.

Dr. Harris: [3:14] The library digitizes not just Christian manuscripts but also manuscripts from other religious traditions.

Father Stewart: [3:21] More recently, we’ve been actively engaging with collections of Islamic manuscripts because they are in places where they are at risk.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] The library works with hundreds of partner libraries all over the world.

Father Stewart: [3:33] I think we’ve worked now with around 500 different libraries.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] That idea of accessibility is central to the mission.

Father Stewart: [3:41] Access works in surprising ways. It’s not simply a scholar at an American university who expects to work from home. It’s also serving communities in the places where we digitize the manuscripts, where for whatever reason, local people cannot gain access.

[3:58] In other cases, given some of our recent work in Iraq and Syria, the original is no longer in existence. We hope that we can foster scholarship that’s interested in the connections between communities.

[4:10] One advantage that we have to a traditional library in developing countries or in places like the Middle East was that libraries tend to represent a single culture, a single language, a single place.

[4:26] The opportunity for comparative manuscript study is becoming more and more important. Here’s a place where we have Western Christian, Eastern Christian, as well as this abundance of Islamic material and Arabic and Persian and indigenous African languages. That’s going to make possible an entirely new kind of scholarship.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] So a more global and a more interdisciplinary approach to manuscript studies that’s enabled by this digital preservation. We’re talking about that on a scale that is unprecedented in human history. One of the biggest projects that the library is involved in is digitizing the manuscripts that were recently saved in Timbuktu.

Father Stewart: [4:53] These are the manuscripts that were evacuated from Timbuktu just before and in the early stages of jihadist takeover of the region and between the manuscripts that were evacuated, the manuscripts that have remain, we’ll be able to have a much fuller view of what the manuscript culture and intellectual vitality of Timbuktu was.

[5:15] What’s fascinating about the Timbuktu manuscripts is there are a number of documents that give us a sense of a place which was indeed at one time a very important crossroads, not only for trade and intellectual life but also the flow of peoples — connections between Timbuktu and Spain, connections between Timbuktu and Egypt — all of these great centers of Islamic learning were connected.

[0:00] People in the pre-modern world moved around a lot more than we think they did.

Dr. Harris: [5:47] This work continues to be important because there is still political instability in Mali, and radical jihadists who may, in fact, target these manuscripts that, although many written in Arabic and many having to do with Islam, don’t conform to their idea of what Islam should be.

Father Stewart: [5:54] There are a lot of risks to manuscripts. There always have been. What we’re finding now is the volatility of culture in many parts of the world is posing a particular risk because things can be destroyed far more quickly and thoroughly than was possible in a pre-technological age.

[6:10] There are also accidents. Some of the greatest libraries in the world have been destroyed by a fire. The Great Archive in Cologne, Germany collapsed because they had been digging a new subway line underneath it.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] If those things had been digitized, we’d still have them.

Father Stewart: [6:24] We actually microfilmed a lot of them.

Dr. Harris: [6:26] Good job. [laughs] Thank you very much for all the work that you’re doing.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Father Columba Stewart, OSB and Dr. Beth Harris, "A race against time: manuscripts and digital preservation," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2017, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-race-against-time-manuscripts-and-digital-preservation/.