Preserving Islamic Manuscripts Under Erasure: The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative

The private manuscript libraries of Yemen comprise one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Arabic manuscripts. Collectively, these 6,000 private libraries possess some 60,000 codices, many of which are unique. But this irreplaceable trove of manuscripts is threatened. In recent years, Yemen’s private libraries have suffered great losses, in part due to extremists who are ideologically opposed to the Zaydi Shiite school of Islam and have targeted Zaydi manuscripts for destruction. In the past ten years, over 10,000 manuscripts, including several entire libraries, have been destroyed.

This paper describes the efforts of The Imam Zaid ben ‘Ali Cultural Foundation (IZbACF), a non-profit, non-governmental organization devoted to digitally preserving this collection. Their efforts have recently been fortified by The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative (, a collective of Middle East librarians and leading scholars of classical Islam, Middle Eastern history, and Arabic Literature from North America, Europe, and the Middle East. In September, 2010, YMDI’s partner institutions Princeton University Library and Free University, Berlin secured a $330k Enriching Digital Collections Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The goal of the NEH/DFG grant has been to create an infrastructure through which manuscripts in private libraries in Yemen are digitally preserved and made widely available through Princeton University’s Digital Library. This paper presents YMDI’s progress and prospects.

Author: David Hollenberg (University of Oregon)


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