In Conversation: Digitizing Effort Prevents Loss of Culture

Editors’ note: Olivia Poust of ONE magazine wrote a feature article about the destruction of cultural heritage during conflict, titled “Erasing Identity,” in the June 2023 issue of ONE magazine.

In her research for this article, she spoke with Benedictine Father Columba Stewart, executive director and CEO of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML). HMML digitizes and catalogs manuscripts from at-risk collections around the world, working with more than 800 libraries across five continents.

Watch the interview in this episode of “ONE: In Conversation” and read below some of the insights Father Stewart shared during the interview.

“The real sort of second chapter of HMML started in 2003, and that was the move to digital imaging from microfilm. And that was also our move toward Eastern Christian manuscripts, more broadly, beyond the Ethiopian focus, starting in Lebanon. So, we began the project in Lebanon in 2003, right around the time of the American invasion of Iraq.”

“And so, the last 20 years have really been shaped by the post-9/11 landscape and the post-2003 landscape, and more recent conflicts, which have sort of been echoes of that or somehow related to that.”

“2003 was a major upset and, you know, the forced population displacement that happened as a result of that and the immigrations, and then the rise of ISIS in 2014 simply exacerbated the situation. So, you have communities being disrupted, in some cases, forcibly removed, now trying to kind of put their life back together in their ancient villages, but that’s extremely difficult. Many of them have already left.

“We also know that some manuscript collections during the ISIS occupation of Northern Iraq were destroyed. They were fortunately ones that we had digitized. Others were miraculously hidden and have reappeared, but they’re not physically accessible. And so again, the digital surrogate is really the only way to look at them.”

“Digital photographs can be really good, but a manuscript is a three-dimensional physical object. And a photograph, even a very high-resolution photograph, can’t capture every aspect of it. So, I do some work with manuscripts in my own scholarship. So, particularly with Syriac manuscripts at the British Library, which is one of my favorite places, and you know, they’ll just hand you a seventh-century Syriac manuscript and let you spend the day with it. And I might have had scans of microfilms, I’m allowed to take my own photos now … But you still find things when you work through the manuscript. There are details of the construction of the manuscript there. Maybe things in the gutter of the leaves in the manuscript that escape the photograph because it really can’t get in there at the right angle. You can’t just crack the book open to get a full view of what’s inside, and things just hit you differently when you see them on a page as opposed to a photograph.”

“Nothing replaces the original, so it’s a loss and it’s also a symbolic loss for the community that a tangible link to their ancestors is no longer there.”

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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