Engaging Shared Heritage @ NYPL

Wednesday Sept 26 I attended the talk at NYPL on ‘Engaging Shared Heritage.’ Academics from around the world shared with each other the projects they are working on and the challenges they face. The panel on “Preserving Cultural Heritage” shared the different types of preservation work they were engaged in. The following panel, “Engaging through Research and Dissemination,” discussed how they connect their work to other cultural heritage institutions and to the larger public. Instead of briefly touching on each person who spoke, I am going to focus on the panelists whose research most aligned with my interests and what we are studying in Foundations of Information.


Challenges to Preservation

Dr. Annie Sartre-Fauriat explained the destruction of historic sites such as the Temple of Bel and Palmyra and the loss of artifacts because of the civil war in Syria is irrecoverable. The proposition Sartre-Fauriat made was to reconstruct the damaged heritage sites from a variety of different periods. She warned against what she called “a Disney style approach” but contested that since Syria has had such a diverse history that the reconstruction shouldn’t look like any one particular era. She explained they do have enough archival resources to create a deep reading of these sites’ histories, but she admits that they while they have unlimited ideas and potential, everything else they need is non-existent. Currently Russian mercenaries are in control of the area and people are quiet freely looting the world heritage sites. She said that at the moment there is virtually no control and no ability to organize any sort of enforcement.

Father Samer Yohanna, a priest from Salahaddin University-Erbil in Iraq, explained the lack of trust that exists at all levels of society in Iraq. He said that between fellow countrymen, neighboring countries, and Westerners there are few areas where large swaths of society can work together. They have had to move their collections 5 times and at the moment they are not disclosing their location to anyone outside of the organization. He stressed the need in Iraq for places of community that give people incentive to see their history as shared, and work to preserve it.  

Father Yohanna also stressed the danger of working with artifacts in the modern Iraqi political climate. This is something that I partly dealt with in my undergraduate thesis, so I was eager to hear his perspective. There is intense pressure for different societal groups to prove their place in Iraq’s history, and against influences that have come in from the West. Yohanna explains ownership of artifacts and control of the narratives that surround them is a volatile issue that makes doing archival work very dangerous in Iraq.

The perspectives represented at this event were a reminder that free unfettered access to information in the context of a civil society might provide healthy debate, but could serve as fodder for violence in an area with few formal avenues to scholarly interpretation. This reflects what we read in the Dabello article, albeit in a different context, about traditional expertise not being able to play the role as gatekeeper as it once did in the face of an active public (Dabello, 2009). Our ability to create a publicly shaped identity I think directly relates to the amount of trust society has in each other and our institutions. When asked about opening up the their online platforms to community input Yohanna and Stewart (mentioned below) said they both have a moderated comment section that often provides insight, but with an undereducated public and a turbulent political climate, maintained that primary interpretation should remain in control of those with library and archive expertise. Respect for expertise and the potential power of crowdsourced information is a tension that continues to come up in this course.


Digitizing Responsibly  

The next panelist, Columbus Stewart, was a Benedictine monk from a monastery I am very familiar with back in Minnesota. He works with Hill Museum Manuscript and Library (HMML). Their mission starting out was to protect Benedictine manuscripts in Eastern Europe directly after WWII. Since then they have expanded to preserving Muslim and Christian manuscripts across the Middle East. HMML began preserving manuscripts in Syria before the civil war broke out. One of his primary points was that we must do preservation work preemptively, especially for things as fragile as manuscripts, because it is often impossible to predict where conflict will break out. He cites their work in Mosul just before the civil war as evidence. Thus far they have digitized 40,000 manuscripts. From their website (https://www.vhmml.org) people can then export their own data sets. The only barrier to access they put up is the creation of a free account to access the images and the export function; people can access the index information without an account.

The key to their success has been working with local communities. He explained the general consensus that Americans find a way to monetize everything they touch. Distrust is something they always face, but their position as monks he said actually helps convince people they are not there to turn a profit. By working with locals they are able to gain a richer understanding of the texts. As a result the metadata that locals generate is far more accurate than what they would produce on their own. Drabinski illustrated this same point with the anecdote about the term “Kafir” in Zambian context (Drabinski, 2013). When digitizing any material we would be repeating past colonial mistakes if we continue to attest that description can be done neutrally. Father Stewart’s team takes this role very seriously. They train and pay locals to take photographs of manuscripts, teach them how to work with the data sets. This results in the spreading of expertise as well as the creation of rich digital databases.  


Archives and Peace

In the next panel, Vincent Lemire introduced us to Open Jerusalem which is trying to index as many archives as possible in Jerusalem and across the Middle East. Some of his points reflected what we have been discussing in class. For example he explained that with archives, unlike books, the producer is not the author and the contents of the archive is always composed of diverse material. They must find a way to describe the archive deeply while also applying a standardization that can be searchable in a database. Also because of the location and history of Israel, they are working with materials written in many different languages and described in different languages still during their various stages of provenance. For this reason they only focus on making the indexes digital, not the actual material.

Lemire explained that it is very difficult to have any mutual basis when inferences from the records lead opposing sides to drastically different conclusions. How they have overcome this, to an extent, is to start at the most basic irrefutable positions such as “this material is a book, it is written in Arabic, it is on such and such type of paper,” and build from there. He sees this as a practical, project-based form of peacemaking. While uninspired by the effects that formal peace talks have had on the region, Lemire argues that having to get through an insurmountable amount of archives forces people to develop a working relationship even if they still deeply disagree. McChesney stressed in “Digital Disconnect,” the importance of having public spaces in order for democratic civil society to flourish (McChesney, 2013). Panelists Yohanna and Lemire both echoed McChesney’s sentiment with the calls for spaces, such as a reading rooms, for people to be able to benefit from materials and develop a local concept of community.


Works Cited

Caswell, M. L. (2016). ‘The Archive’ is Not An Archives. Reconstruction 16(1).

Dalbello, M. (2009). Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage. Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30.

Drabinski, E, (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2). pp 94-111.

McChesney, R. (2013) Digital Disconnect. New York, NY: The New Press.


Event information and feature image credit can be found at:  https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2018/09/26/engaging-shared-heritage

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