Early Thoughts on Manuscript Digitization – The Syriac Digital Humanities: An Interview with George A. Kiraz, Part 4

This is the fifth post of a series by the Digital Orientalist’s Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, based on his interview with George A. KirazThe introduction to the series can be viewed here, the first part here, the second part here, and the third part here.

The Digital Orientalist began to serialize this interview between Syriac Studies Editor, Ephrem Ishac, and Dr. George A. Kiraz in early 2020. The first part focused on Dr. Kiraz’s interest in computers and the beginnings of his journey in the Digital Humanities. The second part focused on Dr. Kiraz’s interest in printing and the creation of Gorgias Press. The third part explored the Beth Mardutho (The Syriac Institute) and ecumenical approaches to Syriac heritage. Today’s part focuses on early ideas for digitizing Syriac manuscripts.

Kiraz during a digitization project at the Syriac Orthodox Archive in Mardin in 2010.

Ephrem (Q9): In one of your Facebook posts, you mentioned a proposal that you had written in 1994 to catalogue and preserve images of the Syriac manuscripts at the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate Library in Damascus. As you know, we at VESTIGIA – The Manuscript Research Centre of Graz University, were granted a permission to catalogue selected manuscripts from the Patriarchate Library, for our Syriac Manuscript Treasures project (2019-2021), so personally I am very interested to hear about your early thoughts on how to digitize and catalogue this historical library. It was very interesting to notice, for example, that you wanted to take images of the manuscripts by linking a tape-based video camera to a computer, and then to save the images on separate floppy disks for long-term preservation. Can you tell us about this very early idea for digitizing Syriac manuscripts with a video camera?

More information on the Syriac Manuscript Treasures project of VESTIGIA, can be found here. 
Information on the manuscripts held by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate and their ongoing digitization, can be found here

G. Kiraz: This idea is from the early 90s. Of course, since there were no digital cameras at that time, it was not an option. Basically, I was theorizing about how to create digital images of these manuscripts. Of course, there were scanners at that time, but they were not a great solution. They were expensive and would require us to place the manuscripts facedown to take our images which might result in damage to the manuscript. So, the question was how to do it on a tight budget, without damaging the manuscripts. The idea that I proposed was to hook up an analog, tape-based video camera over the manuscript, and to link that video camera with a wire to a computer, which would transform the analog signal into a digital signal allowing a snapshot to be taken. You would take and save a few snapshots of the page, and then turn the page and repeat the process. Of course, this sounds like something from the Stone Age when you describe it nowadays, but it was an idea developed in a context when digital cameras did not exist, and the use of scanners wasn’t possible on a low budget.

Part of the proposal.

Ephrem (Q10): Where did you get the idea from? Did it come from other heritages such as Latin, Greek, or Arabic manuscript digitization?

G. Kiraz: I don’t think I got it from what was happening with the digitization of manuscripts in other languages. Of course, my recollection is not very clear now since we’re talking about an idea from early 90s, so I don’t recall exactly how the idea came into being. In fact, I rediscovered the proposal accidentally in the files on my computer and uploaded that information on Facebook, where you saw it. I had completely forgotten about the whole thing; I didn’t even remember that I had made such a proposal…After I read the proposal, I had to make sense of it particularly in light of what we now know about digital cameras. I asked myself: “Why did I propose this?” and “What was wrong with me?” So, it took me a while to reconstruct the idea and its origins in my head.

Recommedations for equipment to digitize manuscripts using the method outlined in the proposal.

Ephrem (Q11): I think it is important for the history of Digital Humanities to collect and document early ideas, such as your proposal. As you said, it’s “like something from the Stone Age,” but for those involved in the Syriac digital humanities today and for those who will be involved in the field in the future, it is undoubtedly interesting to know what sort of ideas, proposals and projects existed in 1994. Do you remember if you ever tested the proposal?

G. Kiraz: I was at the University of Cambridge undertaking my doctoral studies when I wrote that proposal in 1994. So, I didn’t try to test if it would or could work – I didn’t even have a video camera! The whole proposal was theoretical, and I do not recall if I ever tried to test it at a later stage. Theoretically it should have worked, because I know that it’s possible to transfer analog signal into a digital signal, and that technology was known about at the time. Connecting a video camera to a computer was also possible and known about at the time. So theoretically it should have worked, but it was unfortunately not put into practice.

Ephrem: Someone should try it nowadays, and tell us how it would work!

Another image of Kiraz during a digitization project at the Syriac Orthodox Archive in Mardin in 2010.

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