NEW YORK, 27 February 2006 (RFE/RL) – Benjamin Foster, a professor of Assyriology and Babylonian literature at Yale, tells RFE/RL that there's been such a widespread destruction of libraries and collections in Iraq that it is virtually impossible at the moment for scholarship to function there.
"Most of the major research collections were looted or burned or at least their status is very much in doubt," Foster says. "So, on one hand we have to think about what is the future of thought and culture in Iraq. And we have to remember that Iraq is a very youthful country, the majority of the population is under the age of 21. So we're very concerned about the future of this generation, what kind of materials they are going to use."
So, to partly address this problem, Yale University has launched what it calls the "Iraq ReCollection" project. The effort, with funding from the U.S. government, aims to convert into electronic format approximately 100,000 pages or the complete editions of the 12 most significant Iraqi academic journals in humanistic studies, particularly in history, literature, and politics.
In addition to journals from its own collection, Yale will also scan Iraqi journals from the collection of the University of Pennsylvania. Once scanned, the journals will be electronically archived, made available for free access through the Internet, and integrated into other electronic library systems.
Foster says the periodicals that are going to be digitized are poorly known in the West but have significant scientific value.
"So, on the one hand we want to create a resource which is usable by Iraqis as soon as electronic communication is up and working in Iraq," he says. "And on the other hand we want to facilitate access to Iraqi thought and scholarship over a long period of time -- going back to the beginning of Iraq as independent country -- [to facilitate access for academics in] Europe, in the United States, and Latin America."
The professor says that international interest in the project is high because Iraq has always been a lively intellectual center in the Muslim world. Beyond that, Iraq is the cradle of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization and many of the events described in the Bible's Old Testament took place on the territory of modern Iraq.
Ann Okerson of Yale, who is the "Iraq ReCollection" principal coordinator, tells RFE/RL that the project should be completed by the end of 2007. She says that it is not clear at this time whether the digitization of the collection will continue after that.
"[A] number of agencies have gone into Iraq and have funded rebuilding efforts. The NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] is only one small player in this. A lot of international agencies have gone into it," Okerson says. "There are various digital library projects that are starting and I think it is going to be important in the next couple of years for everyone to kind of sit back and take stock and say, ‘What is it that we've done in that country and what remains to be done?'"
Yale, one of the world's top universities, has also launched other projects to track down and maintain Iraqi journals that might otherwise become lost. Through a different program in the last two years, the university identified more than 600 journal titles published at one time in Iraq, 350 of those existing in only one known location.
The university has long been a center of study for Arabic literature and Islamic culture. Its Near Eastern Library collection, started 150 years ago, now houses over 400,000 books and is considered to be one of the most important of its kind.
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