Seizing the Digital Humanities Moment: Envisioning a Medieval Middle East History Source Book as an Open-Access Database

On 24 November 2014, Steve Tamari (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) had convened at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in Washington, DC round table [R3670]: “Is There a Need for a New Primary Source Reader of Pre-Modern Civilizations?” Below follows the précis which I had submitted as one the round table participants.  I was the only participant to argue for a digital Open-Access textbook.  

I am proposing to develop a source book of Middle East history between 600 and 1800 CE as an Open-Access (OA) digital database.  In the US the majority of today’s undergraduates are digital natives.  They may prefer printed books for some of their reading, but most of them will have grown up with digital devices and social media.  Taken together with the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Digital Humanities (DH) initiatives of grant giving organization, it seems thus possible to launch this new textbook on the Internet as an OA database. Although its creation and medium-term maintenance pose their own technical and financial challenges, such an OA database would be accessible to students outside the US and the creation of its contents could be organized as a collaborative transnational project, whose participants will have to decide which of the available platforms (e.g., Wiki, WordPress, Omeka, FlickR) would be most appropriate and cost-efficient for the project.

Organized as a database a source book would offer the opportunity to cover in a more adequate fashion the complexities of premodern Muslim societies.  A printed book’s space limitations make it almost impossible to challenge the traditional views of Middle East history, whether they are Sunni, Shiʿi, Arab, Iranian, or Turkish, and to expand introductory courses on Middle East history, politics and economics so that culture and the arts and sciences will also be covered.  In contrast, the storage capacities of a digital database would make it possible to accommodate the full diversity of the preserved sources, such as documents pertaining to Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as well as Kharijis, Zaydis, Ismailis, Alevis, Babis, Bahais, and Ahmadis.  Moreover, only an OA digital database can take full advantage of the OA depositories of digitized manuscripts and printed books, art objects, audio files, or coins already available on the Internet (e.g., Women’s World in Qajar Iran, Eastern Art Online, Refaiya Library).

To develop this textbook as an OA resource would allow scholars to gain a modest degree of independence from the pressures of commercial academic publishers, while being mindful of the steadily increasing costs of a US college degree.  Since textbooks are an important source of revenue, publishers are vigorously defending their copyright claims whenever they are negotiating with colleges and universities the uses of copyrighted material in the classroom. Moreover, the database’s diverse contents will help instructors to regularly vary reading assignments.

Amended, 6 March 2022

PS 1 – In October 2021, I posted this 2014 précis here on my blog, as I was reviewing the resource collections of the Invisible East programme at the University of Oxford in preparation for an ultimately unsuccessful job interview for a fourteen-month position as research associate.  Arezou Azad (University of Oxford) directs the progaramme.  Its most general goal is to initiate a paradigm shift in research about the history of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia between the eighth and the thirteenth century CE by highlighting the diversity of extant and accessible written sources in New Persian, Judeo-Persian, Arabic, Bactrian, Sogdian, Khotanese and Middle Persian.  In order to affect this paradigm shift, Dr. Azad and her team are committed to the creation of an Open-Access digital corpus.  This forthcoming collection of written witnesses is not mentioned in the posted project description, and so far few concrete details have been published, while the work is under way.

PS 2 – In 2021 two important articles about the digital sources of historical research –  both digital surrogates and born-digital – were published in the American Historical Review (AHR): Itza A. Carbajal and Michelle Caswell, “Critical Digital Archives: A Review from Archival Studies,” AHR 126.3, pp. 1102-1120;; and Joseph L. Locke and Ben Wright, “History Can be Open Source: Democratic Dreams and the Rise of Digital History,” AHR 126.4, pp. 1485-1511;  Locke and Wright are tenured professors of American history who review the ethical and financial challenges that impact the capacity of digital humanists to create Open-Access teaching resources for digital history at the contemporary America neoliberal university.  While the two men explicitly restrict their survey to the United States (p. 1486 n.3), their analysis of the tension between the desire for Open-Access pedagogical resources and the persistent challenges of how to properly recognize and fairly remunerate the indispensable – yet mostly invisible – labor of their creation is relevant to Digital Humanities projects in general.  In contrast, Carbajal and Caswell are archival practitioners who are caring for archives of Latin American and South-Asian American minorities, respectively, while being a doctoral student and a tenured professor of information studies (pp. 1104-1105).  Their article surveys the archival practices that accompany the current flowering of so-called digital archives projects.  The two women identify seven key themes in the theory and practice of digital records management in archival studies in order to increase historians’ awareness of the complexities that deeply affect the digitally available sources of historical research. 

Updated, 6 March 2022 

Limited Storage

As a historian of pre-modern Muslim societies, I am reading not only the written sources of the Islamic civilization but also the materiality of the media through which these written sources were preserved. Their materiality comprises the writing surface itself – marble, slate, clay, papyrus, textiles, palm leaf, paper, bits and pixels – and its “packaging” (e.g., binding), as well as the visual arrangement of the text (i.e., mise-en-page) and its illumination and illustration. 

In the eastern Mediterranean, parchment and papyrus were commonly used writing surfaces in late antiquity, when the codex had replaced the scroll as the dominant format of books.  Islam emerged in the early seventh century on the Arabian Peninsula, and the earliest extant Islamic manuscripts in Arabic script are parchment codices and documents written on papyrus.  Since the ninth century, paper has been the most important writing surface in Muslim-ruled societies  

Paper-making technology entered the Islamic civilization as a Chinese invention.  In Central Asia, around 700, Muslim governors were the first to use paper documents in their written administration of recently conquered territories.  In the 750s the first paper mill was established in Abbasid Baghdad in Mesopotamia, the new capital of the Sunni caliphate which was going to dominate the Islamic East until the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century.  The Islamic adaptation of paper-making technology is considered an important factor for the intellectual and creative flourishing of the Arab-Islamic civilization between the late eighth and the eleventh century, since as a writing surface, paper was more durable than papyrus and less costly than parchment.  These practical advantages of paper, taken together with its low-complexity manufacture and relative affordability, spurred the increased uses of literacy and writing in all aspects of life in Muslim-ruled communities in Eurasia and Africa.

It is against this backdrop that the topos of the abundance of books in medieval Muslim-ruled societies emerged.  The wealth of premodern Islamic book cultures across Eurasia and Africa is usually contrasted with the scarcity of books in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages, on the one hand, and on the other hand, with the absence of printing technology from the commercial manufacture of books by Muslim workshops before the nineteenth century.  Since the late 1970s, the topos of the abundance of books has given way to the celebration, if not fetishization, of Islamic manuscript culture as one of the most important achievements of the Islamic civilization.

In my lecture, I will investigate this topos of abundance, which is both triumphalist and defensive.  The historical record of the premodern Islamic civilization is much more fragmentary than commonly acknowledged, because our own obsession with wealth and ownership loses sight of absences and gaps, loss and destruction.  Despite our own daily experience of limited storage capacities so that we need to regularly discard old things in order to have space for new things (see “fast fashion”), we are reluctant to acknowledge that each book is also a utilitarian, commercial commodity.  Nonetheless, I will argue that the practical advantages of paper make it feasible to replace damaged books with new copies.  In the twenty-first century, paper, as the formerly dominant writing surface, competes with the bits and pixels of computer screens, because books, as media for written contents, are not defined by the materiality of their writing surface.

Madrid, Calle Albasanz 26-28 – 4 April 2017


Madrid, Calle Mayor/Plaza de la Villa – 15 April 2017

 * Précis of my contribution to Paper Trails: Post-Industrial Histories, Technical Memories and Art Practices, a trans-disciplinary online seminar, organized by the Ecole de Design et Haute Ecole d’Art (EDHEA, Valais, Switzerland) and the Instituto Politécnico de Tomar (IPT, Tomar, Portugal), Fall 2021.