One of the most ambitious digital preservation projects is being led, fittingly, by a Benedictine monk. Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota, cites his monastic order’s long tradition of copying texts to ensure their survival as inspiration.
His mission: digitizing some 30,000 endangered manuscripts within the Eastern Christian traditions, a canon that includes liturgical texts, Biblical commentaries and historical accounts in half a dozen languages, including Arabic, Coptic and Syriac, the written form of Aramaic. Rev. Stewart has expanded the library’s work to 23 sites, including collections in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, up from two in 2003. He has overseen the digital preservation of some 16,500 manuscripts, some of which date to the 10th and 11th centuries. Some works photographed by the monastery have since turned up on the black market or eBay, he says.
Among the treasures that Rev. Stewart has digitally captured: a unique Syriac manuscript of a 12th-century account of the Crusades, written by Syrian Christian patriarch Michael the Great. The text, a composite of historical accounts and fables, was last studied in the 1890s by a French scholar who made an incomplete handwritten copy. Western scholars have never studied the complete original, which was locked in a church vault in Aleppo, Syria. Rev. Stewart and his crew persuaded church leaders to let them photograph it last summer. A reproduction will be published this summer, and a digital version will be available through the library’s Web site.
In February, Rev. Stewart traveled to Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities in Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, where he hopes to soon begin work on collections in ancient monastic libraries. “You have these ancient Christian communities, there since the beginning of Christianity, which are evaporating,” he says He’s now seeking access to manuscript collections in Iran and Georgia.
With his black monk’s habit, trimmed gray beard and deferential manner, Rev. Stewart has been able to make inroads into closed communities that are often suspicious of Western scholars and fiercely protective of their texts. Armed with 23-megapixel cameras and scanning cradles, he sets up imaging labs on site in monasteries and churches, and trains local people to scan the manuscripts.
For now, curators and conservationists say capturing endangered manuscripts should be a top priority.
“This could be our only chance,” says Daniel Wallace, executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, the Texas-based center that is attempting to digitally photograph 2.6 million pages of Greek New Testament manuscripts scattered in monasteries and libraries around the world. The group has discovered 75 New Testament manuscripts, many with unique commentaries, that were unknown to scholars. Mr. Wallace says one of the rare, 10th century manuscripts they photographed was in a private collection and was later sold, page by page, for $1,000 a piece. Others are simply disintegrating, eaten away by rats and worms, or rotting.