The ubiquitous use of digitization by a wide range of institutions reflects that scholars, libraries, and grantmaking agencies, such as CLIR and the Imam Zayd Cultural Foundation, employ digitization for reasons quite different from those of commercial publishers. In North America the digitization of Islamic books is used to facilitate access to rare texts (e.g., Caro Minasian Collection, Hathi Trust Digital Library), to preserve endangered cultural heritage (e.g., Afghanistan Digital Library, Yemini Manuscript Digitization Initiative), or to allow for the crowdsourcing of uncataloged manuscripts (e.g., Collaboration in Cataloging). I will argue that in Islamic and Middle East Studies digitization receives little critical attention, because the access to a rare text is valued more highly than the historical interpretation of a specific book as material evidence for the transmission of knowledge.
I will discuss approaches to the digitization of Islamic books to explore its impact on Islamic and Middle East Studies, drawing on my research about the manuscript-print transition in Muslim societies within the context of technology transfer across Eurasia.
The digitization of books is widely accepted, because the digital processing of written language is merely the latest technology used for the display and storage of texts. E-books are on the verge of making the printed book an obsolete object, since for readers access to texts is all that matters. But the naturalization of the e-book is accompanied by the risk of diverting resources from the preservation of the material artifacts. Not every digital text has metadata which link the digital copy to its physical original whose whereabouts and provenance are known. Moreover, the long-time costs of digitization are rarely considered, even though the future functionality of digital surrogates, despite their immaterial appearance on our screens, depends on the continued investment into hardware and software, as well as into human labor.
Author: Dagmar Riedel (Columbia University)