Digital Humanities and Manuscript Archives in Iran

Professor Dr. Rasul Jafarian has significantly contributed to digital humanities during his services as the director of some of the most renowned libraries in Iran, including the Library of the Parliament of Islamic Republic of Iran (Majles) and the Central Library of University of Tehran. His work has resulted in the digitisation of all of the manuscripts, lithographs, documents, and resources in those libraries, which were available online for free as long as he remained in charge. He has also established an exceptionally comprehensive specialised library on the history of Islam and Iran. He has been a professor of Islamic studies, the history of Islam, and Safavid history at the University of Tehran and the University of Isfahan. Dr. Jafarian has supervised numerous Masters and PhD dissertations at those institutions. 

I have asked him about the digitisation of manuscripts and the development of digital humanities in Iran. This was our conversation. 

1. Where do you place digital humanities in Iran, today? Are we in the early stages?

There has been a considerable degree of productive activities in data collection during the past three decades in Iran, especially in the disciplines of Islamic studies. Perhaps the most important Institute in this regard is the Noor digital centre of Islamic studies, which has accumulated a vast number of books and articles in databases, such as Noormags and Noorlib. However, there have not been many further attempts beyond data collection. Firstly, because scientific research in humanities based on digital resources is still not popular. In addition to technological difficulties, and lack of appropriate software programmes, there is also little context for such methodologies in humanities research. In fact, research in Iran—apart from utilising “search” in digital texts—is still not in a position to use digital humanities as an advanced tool. I believe, apart from some private and sporadic projects, there has not been much focus on applying established methods in digital humanities, especially across the Iranian universities. Therefore, yes, I agree with you that we are still in the early stages.

2. Is there a national unified system for cataloguing both analogue and digital? 

Cataloguing in Iran has partly been the continuation of traditional methods, but it was also influenced by modern methods used in European catalogues and those published from manuscripts preserved in Indian or Arab libraries (Cairo and Damascus). Therefore, it was almost impossible to follow a homogenous method from the outset. This issue has been discussed before numerous times and various models have been planned, but none had sustainable success. Libraries and collections have their own style based on their preferences. We can only mention methods applied by a few well-known cataloguers, such as Sayyid Ahmad Husayni Ashkevari and sons, who have managed to organise more than one hundred catalogues for various libraries in their unified method. However, in recent years, with the emergence of two famous catalogues (Dena and Fankhaa), which include information extracted from several previous catalogues presented in a unified style, now cataloguing is done in a more homogenous way.

3. Is it foreseeable to have a Unicode catalogue in Iran similar to Fihrist, which uses TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) to create a uniform database of Islamic manuscripts in the UK institutions?

That is undoubtedly an essential project and has to be done. In the past years, some measures have been taken to make it happen, mainly by librarianship companies, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Science, Azad Islamic University, and some other private institutes, but it has not been fulfilled yet. One of the obstacles is that the necessity for creating a uniform and shared database is not understood by most directors. Almost every institute plans independently and allocates their funds internally. There are also technological issues: the existence of various applications with significantly different infrastructures, and many different companies each following their own exclusive methods. Solving the programming issue, requires major decisions beyond companies and libraries, a task that is not easily achieved.

4. What percentage of the manuscripts in Iranian collections are digitised? What percentage are available to researchers, free or with a fee? 

Unfortunately, there are no accurate statistics about that. All I can say is that all of the manuscripts in the Majles Library, Tehran University Central Library, Malek National Library, and Islamic Heritage Revival Centre in Qom are digitised. A halo of serious doubt surrounds other significant libraries, such as the Mar‘ashi Library in Qom, Astan Qods (Holy Shrine) Library in Mashhad, and even the National Library; there is no data on what portion of their manuscripts are digitised, but we are confident that not all of their manuscripts have been catalogued. A large number of private libraries have catalogued their manuscripts, a part of which is published by an institute in Qom (Dar al-Zakha’ir); yet, not accessible to the public. And a great number of private collections has still remained uncatalogued. 

5. You are a pioneer in the movement of digitisation of library resources in order to make them available to interested audience, during your years as Head of the Parliament Library (Kitabkhana-yi Majlis). What obstacles did you have to overcome?

We didn’t face any major issues then. In the Majles Library (Library of the Parliament), there was enough freedom for the director to make decisions independently. My boss, the Head of the Parliament, and the Board of Trustees were very supportive. We were almost in good state financially. Likewise, we did not have any problem with digitisation and accommodating the digitised manuscript images and files on the online database. We were working as a team and purposefully tried to avoid redoing tasks. There were some objections in regard to sharing the resources online “for free”. Some argued that digitisation would damage manuscripts and it should be avoided unless completely necessary. Nevertheless, I overcame all obstacles easily and soon we uploaded 23,000 digitised manuscripts on the website. I have to say that I encountered more difficulties at the University of Tehran. Eventually, with some help from a company—which did not expect financial gain—we were able to digitise all manuscripts and make them accessible on the website for free. However, both institutions have begun charging a fee since I left.

6. What are the difficulties today? Are they management-related or about the lack of sufficient funds?

The main problem is that most directors and decision-making bodies do not realise the importance of this issue and its practical aspects, because they mostly have no experience of scientific work in this field. In fact, they do not feel the urgency of this issue. There is no law that can make them share their resources with the public on a digital platform, nor do they have any plans to allocate funds for digitisation, which costs a fortune. Above all, a lack of understanding is a far greater obstacle than practicality and executional issues. 

7. Do libraries receive any part of the government annual budget? 

As far as I am aware, there is no state fund specifically for developing “digital humanities” in libraries. In the National Library (Melli), some budget is allocated to new acquisitions, but I do not think there would be any funds for digitisation of codices or documents, nor for digital humanities projects. However, there might be funded programmes in universities or educational institutes for digital humanities about which I have not heard.

8. The digitisation quality of beautiful manuscripts—with illuminations and illustrations—compared with world class libraries, such as the British Library, is quite low. Wouldn’t it be wiser to invest in more technologically advanced equipment, capable of providing high-resolution digital images from the outset? We witness a lack of such equipment even libraries that accommodate manuscripts with deluxe aesthetic quality, namely the Golestan Palace or Malek Library. 

I agree with you. But most centres are very poorly equipped. On the other hand, they have a large number of documents that should be scanned and shared. When it comes to exquisite manuscripts and artworks, there should be scanning machines with higher precision at the libraries and museums. Moreover, lack of sufficient space in servers is another limiting factor. Both insufficient equipment and database space are affected by limited funds. Nonetheless, it is crucial to avoid damaging manuscripts by repeated scanning. I should note that in most libraries, management bodies are incapable of distinguishing and highlighting which manuscripts are exceptionally valuable! 

9. How far have the Iranian universities gone in updating their educational curricula and pedagogy to encourage and facilitate academics and students access to digital archives and methodologies in their research and study? 

Strategic and navigational development is happening in several levels at universities, including official and educational. The latter experienced progress during the Covid lockdowns; predominantly in terms of facilitating the connection between professors and students. We witnessed a massive rise in the number of digital texts, as well as video and audio files. We don’t know how organised they are, but probably not perfectly classified. What’s more, dissertations and the process of their preparation are now more effectively archived because manual procedures were replaced by the use of digital applications. This resulted in more efficient preservation and development of such data. Concurrently, we are witnessing progress in identifying plagiarism and idea infringements. 

Yet, there is no systematic motivation to encourage students and scholars to utilise digital archives, except in limited cases. Lack of technological infrastructures and software programming in a broader perspective also add to the aforementioned problems and slow down the progress. In fact, we are facing an unbalanced and disorganised development. At least, that is what I feel and understand based on my observation and experience.

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