By Jan Zastrow
Gathering at the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center on 16th Street in downtown Washington, DC, a whopping 40-plus DC/SLA members met for an update of cultural heritage sites at risk in the Middle East on Thursday, April 21.
The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC) is dedicated to educating people of the United States about the breadth and richness of Omani culture. Through outreach programs, language scholarships, lectures, educational resources, cultural partnerships—and its wonderful exhibits and library—SQCC brings the culture, history, and heritage of Oman to US audiences.
After enjoying the exhibits and indulging in yummy appetizers, we were welcomed by DC/SLA President Beth Maser who talked about joining SLA. SQCC Librarian Jesse Lambertson, who moderated the event, said his library includes a range of cultural heritage books and publications in both English and Arabic, many by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture as well as the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Also represented are novels and short stories, contemporary Omani poetry, and digitized materials such as wills, trusts and other administrative archival documents from the days when the Sultans of Oman lived in Zanzibar and the Portuguese controlled the Sea of Oman. All materials are open for public research and scholarship.
Lambertson introduced Michael Albin who described his recent visit to Kurdish Iraq investigating the work of digitizing books in the north of Iraq. He specifically highlighted the work of Father Najeeb Michael, who is working to protect Christian documents and materials from destruction, decay and theft in the northern city of Erbil, Iraq. This is interesting because the conservation and preservation issues not only affect Arabic or Islamic materials, but reflect the more diverse population of those who live in Iraq and Syria.
Then we heard from John Van Oudenaren, LC’s Director for International Programs with the World Digital Library. The WDL started in 2006 and now has content from ~130 sites around the world. Although it wasn’t intended to preserve actual physical objects, the World Digital Library has created digital images of cultural heritage materials that have since been destroyed, in effect serving as their substitutes. The WDL has a range of materials from the Arabic language in digitized manuscript form sourced from many institutions from the Middle East. To make the searching of the domain easier, the interface has been translated into seven languages, including Arabic, Russian, Portuguese and others.
Finally, Peter Herdrich joined us via Skype to describe the work of “The Antiquities Coalition” which combats cultural racketeering—the illicit trade in antiquities—and cultural cleansing. He hopes to create a Digital Library of the Middle East (similar to the Digital Public Library of America), which will be an aggregated collection of resources on a single website. His presentation revealed how systematic the cultural heritage looting has become in Syria—incredibly, even backhoes are being used at several sites to dig up antiquities in bulk! Herdrich is particularly focused on library and document preservation, and on providing access to materials that might rarely be seen without digitization.
Many thanks to our speakers for sharing their sobering experiences saving cultural patrimony in the Middle East, and to Jesse for hosting us at the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.
Until next time,
DC/SLA Communications Team