My Quest: Across the Digital Divide to Save the Slavic Manuscripts

By Nikolova-Houston, Tatiana | Computers in Libraries, April 2002 | Go to article overview
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My Quest: Across the Digital Divide to Save the Slavic Manuscripts


Nikolova-Houston, Tatiana, Computers in Libraries


Like many of you, I am a librarian. While earning an M.S. and an M.L.I.S. I worked with special collections at the Society of Folk Dance Historians, Saint Elias Orthodox Church, the University Catholic Center, and the Austin (Texas) Graduate School of Theology. I created electronic catalogs for some and advised others on preservation. Seeing the needs of these institutions, I decided to pursue a Certificate of Specialization, and that led to the quest that I'll describe here.

What started this quest? While researching a homework assignment in 1999, I stumbled across the Summer School in Digital Preservation of Slavic Medieval Manuscripts in Sofia, Bulgaria. When I discovered those deeply hidden collections, rent and silently suffering the dust and mold, I decided to dedicate my life to salvaging them from the devastations of time. I attended the Summer School, which convinced me of the manuscripts' value and their need for help. Thus started my education in digital preservation and access, and my quest to save the treasured Slavic medieval manuscripts.

In the U.S., I spent more than 2 years fighting many battles, slaying the dragons of computer technology, preservation and conservation technology, and global ignorance of the importance of manuscripts. I saturated my mind and heart with digitization theory. Then appeared the dragons of anxiety over the complex technological issues, and my own lack of strength. Yet, where there is a will, there is a way!

I applied for and failed to receive grants to go back to Bulgaria, but the manuscripts could not wait. Back in November 2000, with my own money matched by funds raised from my church parish, I had donated a computer to the manuscript collection at the Historical and Archival Church Institute (HACI) in Bulgaria while I was there for a conference. This donation opened the portals to the collection and, a year later, HACI invited me to conduct research there through an academic practicum. So in September 2001, I armed myself with a laptop computer, a digital camera, a CD burner, and an inkjet printer, and I found myself again in Bulgaria, digitizing one of the great medieval manuscript collections. During the 3 months I spent at HACI this past winter, I created an electronic catalog of its holdings and conducted a digitization pilot project, producing CDs that contain images of its most endangered and most beautiful treasures. I found my grail.

Now I will share with you the story of my quest, starting with a bit of background on the nature of Slavic medieval manuscripts and the digital divide between East and West. Then I'll tell you howl approached the delicate digitization projects of this extraordinary special collection.

Bulgarian Manuscripts

Bulgaria, a nation for over 1,300 turbulent years, nurtured the Slavic literacy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, and Bulgarian scribes documented and transmitted the remnants of classical Greek civilization throughout Eastern Europe. Yet the Renaissance came late to Bulgaria, and her Slavic works remain inaccessible and unknown to the Western world.

Although all special collections with holdings of medieval manuscripts follow similar guidelines and protocols for preservation and access, manuscript collections vary in their arrangement, quality of facilities, environmental control, staff, and levels of preservation and access. In Eastern Europe, foreign money and expertise have improved the condition of some holdings through specialists such as David Birnbaum from the University of Pittsburgh and Masudu and Kozhi Okamoto from Japan.

The HACI collection of 1,509 manuscripts and early printed books from the 10th to 19th centuries stands out as a research institution and repository of valuable manuscripts and archival documents. Among the early printed books, it holds incunabula, the first edition of the famous 1581 Bible, and other beautifully gold-illuminated manuscripts.

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My Quest: Across the Digital Divide to Save the Slavic Manuscripts
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