Race to Digitize Ancient Manuscripts

Wall St. Journal writes,

Improved technology is allowing researchers to scan ancient texts that were once unreadable — blackened in fires or by chemical erosion, painted over or simply too fragile to unroll. Now, scholars are studying these works with X-ray fluorescence, multispectral imaging used by NASA to photograph Mars and CAT scans used by medical technicians.

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.

Read full story here.

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