Yemeni Manuscripts Online: Digitization in an Age of War and Loss
Near Eastern Languages and Societies
In 2013, a corpus of manuscripts from Yemen became openly accessible to the public through the Princeton University Digital Library portal. Numbering around 250 codices, most were digitized and cataloged from three private collections held in Yemen, under the auspices of the Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative (YMDI), a scholarly network that was underpinned by institutional support from the Princeton University Library and Freie Universität Berlin. This article delves into the YMDI project, as a significant case study, with the goal of considering how this group of digital surrogates functions as an online collection, rather than viewing the Princeton portal as a transparent access point for these manuscripts or examining any of the YMDI volumes or their contents individually. Mass digitization projects are often sketched as efforts of “salvage,” focusing on issues of both preservation and accessibility. By contrast, here, it is asserted that the meaning and significance of these manuscripts have not been sustained through the act of digitization, but rather transformed, particularly amidst Yemen’s current unstable political situation. It is hoped that this article will provide a critical backdrop to the YMDI collection, by situating the cultural act ofdigitization historically, thereby helping users to understand these collections more substantively and inspiring us to think critically about how and why we digitize historic manuscripts in a precarious contemporary world.