Monday, June 1, 2009

Benedictine monk copies manuscripts: Slow news day, or super-exciting?

A Benedictine monk, inspired by his order's long history of copying manuscripts, is at the head of an effort to digitize rare and priceless manuscripts. The Wall Street Journal reports:

One of the most ambitious digital preservation projects is being led, fittingly, by a Benedictine monk. Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's Abbey and University in Minnesota, cites his monastic order's long tradition of copying texts to ensure their survival as inspiration.

His mission: digitizing some 30,000 endangered manuscripts within the Eastern Christian traditions, a canon that includes liturgical texts, Biblical commentaries and historical accounts in half a dozen languages, including Arabic, Coptic and Syriac, the written form of Aramaic. Rev. Stewart has expanded the library's work to 23 sites, including collections in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, up from two in 2003. He has overseen the digital preservation of some 16,500 manuscripts, some of which date to the 10th and 11th centuries. Some works photographed by the monastery have since turned up on the black market or eBay, he says.

I think this is an amazingly cool story. It lumps together a lot of digital preservation projects, though, some being much more exciting and much more important than others. The slide show includes, next to images of deteriorating priceless manuscripts being preserved by digitization like a 17th-century Book of Hours in Arabic from a Lebanese manuscript, the UN's World Digital Library image of Einstein's naturalization papers. I'd guarantee that Einstein's Declaration of Intent has been scanned multiple times and exists in digital copies in several places. It's often seen in National Archives brochures. I mean, it's well-known, it's safe and well-cared for, I'm sure it's location is meticulously documented (especially if the article is accurate in saying it's housed in College Park, as I think that, as Einstein was from NJ, his papers would be housed in NY if they weren't taking particular care of them because they're special), and it appears to be in very good condition. It's available digitally on NARA's website. Maybe I'm jaded by constant exposure to "normal" archival materials, but being able to see Einstein's declaration online in another place just seems plain old boring compared to modern day monks crusading for the preservation of otherwise unknown, unavailable, inaccessible, and often unprotected priceless manuscripts.

Crusader monks and archival preservation. What's not to love?

H/T Jennifer's Favorite Links

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