Digitizing Our History

Spring 2023

Above: A Qur’an section produced in Konya, Anatolia dated A.H. 845 / A.D. 1441. Manuscript Collection, Archives and Special Collections Department, AUB Libraries

Among the many artifacts from the newly digitized personal archive of Lebanese writer, poet, historian, and journalist Isa Iskandar al-Maʻluf is a postcard featuring a military ceremony marking the departure of Henry de Jouvenel, former high commissioner of France in the Levant. Goosestepping French soldiers march at the Place des Canons, the Martyr’s Square of yesteryear. It’s the kind of postcard a French military man serving in the Levant in the 1920s might have sent to a relative back home, a symbol of colonial patriotism, the empire celebrating itself.“


Depart de Mr de Jouvenel – Beyrouth
Isa Iskandar al-Maʻluf Postcard Collection, Archives and Special Collections Department, AUB Libraries


These postcards, documents, photos communicate a lot of visual and cultural information, but they are becoming old and worn, and they need to be preserved,” says Elie Kahle, AUB’s director of digital initiatives and scholarship. “And then there’s the regional unrest, the power outages,and lately, the earthquakes.” To that end, Kahle and archivists at AUB have been working hard to digitize as much historically significant, or even potentially historically significant,material as possible.

AUB has been digitizing documents for many years. The university helped build the NYU-hosted Arabic Collections Online, a publicly available digital library of public domain Arabic language content. Today, its newest partner is the British Library—the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s largest libraries. The partnership began when AUB received al-Maʻluf’s personal archive and applied for a grant to fund its preservation. Theal-Maʻluf collection is now online on both the AUB Library and the British Library websites.

Following that initial collaboration,the British Library approached AUB to discuss its new Endangered Archive Program (EAP), the idea behind the program being that pre-1950sdocuments and photos in strife-filled parts of the world must be preserved,and quickly, before being destroyed by wars, disasters, and decaying infrastructure. Not long ago, microfilms containing original images of Lebanese political and literary journals from the 19thcentury were on the verge of irreparable degradation because the climate controlled environment they require to maintain their integrity kept failing due to blackouts. “We were on the verge of losing them, so we took emergency action and moved them to a more stable location in the Conservation and Preservation section of the University Libraries,” Kahle explains.

“We want to establish a network of hubs throughout the MENA region that will facilitate applications to EAP. AUB’s role here is that of an advocate,”he adds. “We are empowering our community, we are advertising for the program and helping to recruit potential participants in the program.”

Starting in March, AUB began hosting workshops on campus on digitization and preservation. “Let’s say you have a personal archive but you don’t know how to preserve it. We will train you in preservation for free, and at the same time, you can apply to receive funding for it from the British Library.”

The small grants can fund the purchase of a scanner or camera, lighting, and color-checking equipment, all of which can be used to most accurately render documents digitally.“ AUB, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, is working to safeguard Lebanon’s and the wider Middle East’s cultural heritage. We hope to be known as a regional center for excellence for digitization and cultural preservation.”