Libraries of the Nafusa. A pilot project to document and digitize material heritage in the Jebel Nafusa, Libya.
by Paul Love, Al Akhawayn University
Libraries of the Nafusa.
A pilot project to document and digitize material heritage in the Jebel Nafusa, Libya
Paul Love (Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco)
Session IV — 16 February 2022
Part I: Project Formation & Aims
The Libraries of Nafusa is a pilot project to document and to digitize written material culture in the Jebel Nafusa region of Libya. It is led by the Ibadica Centre for Research and Studies on Ibadism in France and the Fassato Foundation in Libya, with financial support from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung’s “Patrimonies” funding program in Germany. The administrative team reflects the international nature of the project, with members in Morocco, Algeria, France, and the United States.
Ibadica is a Research center created in Paris in 2013. Our approach aims to report on works and projects that touch on the Ibadiyya, i.e. the history, religious, philosophical and political thought of the Ibadi communities and their evolution. From a practical point of view, Ibadica works to bring together different academic fields and researchers to create points of convergence.
Concretely, our approach can be described as follows:
- We try to list and to follow all the current research and all the productions and works in Latin and Arabic languages. We’ve built a specialized library and a bibliographic database covering all the disciplines of Ibadism
- The difficulty of accessing manuscript and archival sources in private libraries is often mentioned by researchers. Ibadica seeks to associate all researchers from different backgrounds with local cultural centers in the access to manuscript sources through several projects and partnerships.
By Soufien Mestaoui
Since the project has really just begun, I want to share with you a bit about how the project formed, how the initial stages have unfolded, and what our plans for this year are.
The LoN builds on our experience working with private and public libraries in the nearby island of Djerba, Tunisia. From 2018-2021, there was a documentation and digitization initiative called the “Jerba Libraries Project” that was supported by the Endangered Archives Programme (funded by Arcadia and administered by the British Library). For that project, I and my colleague Ali Boujdidi trained a group of young Tunisians in the basics of manuscript studies and the use of the camera and lighting equipment they would then need to carry out the project. Over the next two and half years, the team successfully documented and digitized four private and public library collections (five including our pilot) of manuscripts and early Arabic print materials.
As we approached the final stages of the Jerba Libraries Project, we began formulating a similar project plan for the nearby Jebel Nafusa region, which has for centuries had a regular exchange of people and books with Jerba. This is large part due to the shared religious affiliation of the two areas, which are both home to Ibadi Muslim communities. Like Jerba, Nafusa also has a centuries-old tradition of manuscript culture, but the political circumstances in Libya over the past century or so have meant that far less is known about written culture in the region than in neighboring Tunisia.
The LoN was conceived to document and to protect this important written heritage by engaging and empowering local actors through mobilizing international support networks in the Mediterranean region. The pilot aimed to recruit and to train a team of Libyans to carry out an initial, short-term project in 2021-22 focusing on one or two private collections. The team would document and digitize the collections, as well as provide archival-grade storage containers for any objects they documented.
Part II: Initial Stages
The first step was to assemble the team.
On the ground in Libya, Ustadh Ali Mazawi (Fassato Foundation) recruited a cohort of Libyans for the documentation and digitization team. The Ibadica team in France sought out instructors from the Mzab Valley in Algeria, where similar efforts to document Ibadi manuscript and print collections have been underway for some three decades. We decided to hold the training of the team in Jerba, given both its proximity to the Jebel Nafusa and the historical and cultural ties linking it to both the Jebel and the Mzab Valley. We also sought help from the National Laboratory for Conservation and Restoration of Parchment and Manuscripts in Raqqada, Tunisia, who provided us with a specialist in conservation to train the team in the construction of archival storage boxes. With the basic framework in mind, we began work in early summer 2021 to launch the project at the end of the summer.
Since we knew a 10-day training session was not sufficient to introduce the team to all aspects of how to handle and to document manuscripts, we developed an online course to introduce them to the basics of manuscript studies. The short course, run on Google Classroom, aimed to provide the team with a foundational understanding of manuscript book structures, the history of paper production, and strategies used for dating manuscripts. It also introduced them to the different between manuscript books and lithograph books, as well as some more technical aspects of manuscript studies like watermarks. We also met for a few different sessions online, so that everyone had the opportunity to speak and interact with each other prior to our meeting in person.
Part III: Training in Djerba
Various delays prevented us from starting in August 2021 as planned but we eventually held the training in Jerba for 10 days in late December and early January. Border closures and vaccination requirements demanded a last-minute shifting of roles and responsibilities—including my absence since the Moroccan borders were closed for several months. But we ultimately brought together a talented team of trainers from Algeria, the United States, and Tunisia to offer targeted training sessions in manuscript documentation, conservation and archival box construction, and digitization methods. The training took place in an educational complex in Jerba, where trainers and students stayed together.
The setting also provided the team with unique opportunities to take short trips off-site, where they met with owners and curators of manuscript collections and projects in Jerba. Our trainers used these visits as learning opportunities by asking team members to put their new skills to use in examining manuscripts on site. The visits were instructive for other reasons, as well, since they gave the team a sense of the delicate nature of interacting with the owners of manuscript collections.
Alongside the goal of practical training in manuscript documentation, the training also had an equally important, less tangible purpose. Based on our experience, the success of these types of initiatives rests not on technical expertise or equipment but on human relationships. The training aimed to bring the team together in a shared space where they could get to know one another, build friendships and partnerships, and a sense of shared trust. We knew it would not be possible throughout most of the project for our instructors, administrative team, and our documentation team to interact in person. They would instead have to rely on communication via Google and WhatsApp. The training in Jerba thus offered us the chance for team members to establish personal connections, which would be the foundation upon which future collaborations would rely.
The team returned to Libya in early January with the equipment needed to begin the project. Since that time, they have met regularly on Fridays and Saturdays to work on the pilot collection of manuscript books, lithograph books, and miscellaneous documents. The collection offers an excellent representative sample of the type of private libraries they can expect to encounter in the future. Currently, the team is in the process of sorting and documenting all items in the collection, with plans to begin photographing it in the future.
The presentation was followed by a long exchange with the audience. Among the various topics evoked on this occasion, we would like to recall three promising paths that appear in the Jerbian corpus. Primo, the study of the margins in order to reconstruct an intellectual milieu. Secundo, the analysis of private letters, not only for their historical value, but also for their linguistic specificities (wusṭā and dialectal registers). Tertio, the redaction of a monograph on an educated Ibāḍī woman whose correspondence has been found during the campaign.