October 17, 2005

C.U. Helps Protect Iraqi Manuscripts

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With many ancient and precious manuscripts damaged by the war in Iraq, what are librarians in the Middle East to do? Fortunately, these librarians have the tools to preserve valuable books and manuscripts provided by an online preservation tutorial recently provided by John Dean from the Cornell University Library’s Department of Preservation and Collections Maintenance.

This online preservation guide, available in both English and Arabic, was written by Dean and illustrated and designed by Carla DeMello of the library’s Instruction, Research and Information Services (IRIS). It was completed this past summer.

The department was first commissioned by the Council on Library and Information Resources to write an online preservation tutorial for Southeast Asia three years ago. The tutorial was available to all 10 nations in Southeast Asia and was “very successful,” Dean said.

The tutorial was designed so Southeast Asian librarians could have access to preservation information on a continuous basis by simply going online. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) translated the tutorial into French and Spanish.

Although it was designed specifically for Southeast Asia, “when the latest unpleasantness arose in Iraq, there was a mad frenzy in the government to actually do something to help rescue the materials that are being so badly damaged immediately after the American occupation,” Dean said.

The department and Dean proposed to create a preservation tutorial specifically for Arabic-speaking countries.

“Arabic is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world … so we felt that it would do a major service to Arabic-speaking [countries] as well as Iraq,” Dean said.

The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The tutorial teaches common preservation practices. These include making sure that collections are in appropriate climates, including good air circulation, that materials are shelved properly and that a ready response system is created should a sudden disaster occur.

“These are things librarians really need to know,” Dean said.

In addition to these common preservation practices, the tutorial addresses needs specific to the Middle East. For example, the Middle East has indigenous manuscripts which include clay tablets, stone tablets, papyrus and parchments.

Another issue is climate control. In the United States, air conditioning is commonly used. However many nations do not have electricity or consistent electricity, so they need passive climate control techniques. One technique the tutorial teaches is opening small vents in the top of the building and windows on the floor level. This creates heavy movements of air that move through the building, thus cooling collections and preventing mold growth.

Another important skill the tutorial teaches is how to pursue grant funding. The tutorial also offers a list of a number of resources that are not normally available. The tutorial also teaches librarians how to train others in preservation and conservation.

“Supporting the Effort provides librarians with information with tools in order to get to where they want to be, and I think that’s the most important thing,” Dean said.

Since writing the tutorial, Dean was asked to teach courses in Baghdad to Iraqi librarians and archivists. However, due to security issues, courses were switched to Jordan. There, he noticed that there “were very bright librarians, many of them leaders in the library profession in Iraq, [but they] were beaten down and very depressed [because] the situation is so bad. There is no electricity, the conditions are generally very poor.”

According to Dean, the Iraqi librarians want to return to normality.

“They want to go back to the situation where they did have electricity, where they did have libraries, and so forth. And the academic institutions want to get students back into the universities, they want to get university libraries up and running. So there is a desire to get back to where they were,” Dean said.

However, he noted, Iraqi librarians also desire progression.

“There were only 60 places in Iraq where people can gain internet access – there weren’t training programs in preservation,” he said. “They want to get back to where they were and beyond that.”

Dean has worked on the tutorial for three months. Having been working in preservation since he was 12 years old, writing the tutorial – which he did from scratch – was not difficult.

In addition to written content, illustrations were used to enhance the preservation guide.

“Especially since [the tutorial] is across languages, we really needed to describe things with pictures so it’s kind of a how-to, step-by-step process. So that was really fun to take what he was describing and make it as clear as possible,” DeMello said.

One of the difficulties Dean faced was balancing providing enough information with too much. “You do not want people beginning to practice complex conversation operations on valuable materials … [this tutorial] is not intended for advanced conversation treatment because they can damage materials if they are not careful.”

For these particular materials, Dean wants to encourage librarians to use trained conservationists.

Archived article by Virginia Nam
Sun Contributor