Library preserves Iraq journals

With the help of a donation from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Yale library has embarked on a project to preserve several academic journals from or about Iraq in the current Arabic collections at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania over the next two years.

Yale Library’s Iraq ReCollection project will digitize nine journals on Iraq’s contribution to the humanities, with topics ranging from archaeology to poetry and linguistics. The long-term goal of the project — which last month received a two-year $97,060 grant from the NEH — is to provide worldwide Internet access to scholarship that may have otherwise been lost, said Ann Okerson, associate University librarian and principal investigator for the project.

“Iraq is one of the ancient important centers of Middle East studies and civilization,” Okerson said. “It’s [a] decent-sized project for us.”

The Iraq program is part of a larger project by the Yale Library to develop a digital library for the Middle East, Okerson said.

“I think if we didn’t have the other digital Middle East initiative we wouldn’t have gone for this,” she said. “To our way of thinking it’s synergistic.”

The preservation of these journals is important because they give a feel for the Iraqi academic scene over the last century, Assyriology and Babylonian literature professor Benjamin Foster said.

“Periodicals give a kind of a snapshot of what people are doing in a field at any given time,” he said.

The journals that were chosen for digitization are of high quality, Okerson said, but the most important criterion in choosing which titles to digitize is that they exist in a complete set.

“We didn’t want to digitize something that has lots of gaps in its runs,” she said.

One of the difficulties the ReCollection project and other Arabic digitization projects face is that few software programs exist with the ability to make Arabic searchable on the Internet, and those that do exist have a relatively low accuracy, Okerson said. To get around this problem, the Yale Library is working with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, which has the most advanced Arabic language-searching technology of any library in the world, she said.

While the service will help students of Arabic and others interested in Iraq worldwide, Okerson said, the greatest benefit is to the Iraqi people.

“They have been shut off from their heritage, their history,” she said. “To my mind there’s a moral social issue here that needs to be addressed.,” she said.

But Foster said that because of the current war in Iraq it will be a while before most Iraqis have access to the journals.

“At the moment, you’re lucky if you have electricity for a half-hour a day,” he said. “We’re looking at the future.”

Francis Deblauwe, national director of the Iraq War and Archaeology project, said the ReCollection project is important because it focuses on preserving Iraq’s rich cultural heritage rather than the current conflict.

“There’s so much destruction that it is very good to focus attention on all the positive contributions of Iraq … to focus on the fact that Iraq is not just about bombs and guerilla warfare,” he said.

Nachy Kanfer ’06, a senior student assistant for the project, said he thinks while the project is valuable, it is only relevant to a small group of people.

“It’s great that it’s going to become more available and more free,” he said. “At the same time, these are [in the] Arabic language. There aren’t very many people who read it.”

Elizabeth Payne GRD ’07 said she thinks the project is important because it allows people all over the globe to read the journals, including those who would otherwise be unable to take advantage of them.

The NEH grant is part of a larger initiative called “Recovering Iraq’s Past” that is intended to support the preservation and documentation of cultural resources in Iraq’s archives, libraries and museums.

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