The Illinois Archives is full of unique accounts of histories and societies from all over the world, including a collection of Mauritanian manuscripts from the early 1800s that were microfilmed by Professor Emeritus Charles C. Stewart nearly 30 years ago. The collection includes 2,054 works from the libraries of Harun b. Baba b. Sidi Muhammad b. Sidiyya al-Ntishai'i, Ismail b. Baba, and Ya'qub. Laila Hussain Moustafa, Assistant Professor of Library Administration and the Middle East and North Africa subject specialist in the International Area Studies Library, has been working to preserve each of the nearly 10,000 pages by turning them into digitized copies that can be transferred to other searchable formats in the future.
What exactly are the Mauritanian Manuscripts?
The Mauritanian Manuscripts are a collection of written, microfilmed manuscripts discovered by Professor Emerita Charles C. Stewart when he was a graduate student studying in Mauritania. The manuscripts themselves are nearly two generations old, from around the early 1800s (see photo copy of the manuscripts below). The manuscripts cover everything from history, medicine, food, prayer, and much more. They are really powerful in the insights they provide us into the lives of the citizens of Mauritania during that time.
The copy of the manuscripts we have at the library is written in Arabic. However, some of the other sub-Saharan Africa manuscripts within the archives are written in other languages such as Ajmi and Swahili. Additionally, of the 10,000 pages of manuscripts that we have, many of them are the only surviving copies from the original collection.
Why are you digitizing the collection?
We plan to digitize the collection because it is the only solution that will effectively preserve the pages. As microfilm ages, it can become hard for researchers to use. Digitizing the manuscripts also allows us to transfer the manuscripts to a searchable copy using a language recognition tool called an optical character reader (OCR). This tool converts images of handwritten or typed/printed text into machine-encoded text. By developing an OCR tool for Arabic, we are able to scan the manuscripts and turn them into a searchable document.
Why do you think these manuscripts are important to the University of Illinois?
These manuscripts are incredibly important to the educational experience. We have many students going into the field (in Africa) and the manuscripts can provide further insight into the history, language, and culture of where they are studying or conducting research. These manuscripts also provide us with an opportunity to learn how to preserve history so it’s great that we are having conversations around that.
What would you want people to know about these manuscripts?
I would like to share a quote from Hugh R. Trevor-Roper, an historian who in 1965 told the world that "perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present, there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history” (Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Rise of Christian Europe, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965, page 9.). This is simply not true. These manuscripts have helped show Africa’s written history. Preserving it and giving access to it is important because it is true documentation that presents part of the history of Africa.
Visit the Illinois Archives website.
About Charles C. Stewart
Charles C. Stewart is a Professor Emeritus of History and a scholar of 18th through 20th century Islam in West Africa. He is the author of 'Islam and Social Order in Mauritania: A Case Study from the Nineteenth Century' and the founder of the Arabic Manuscript Management System, a bilingual database of over 20,000 Arabic manuscripts from West Africa. During his tenure at Illinois, he also served as the Interim Associate Provost for International Affairs.
About Laila Hussein Moustafa
Laila Hussein Moustafa is an Assistant Professor of Library Administration and the Middle East and North Africa subject specialist in the International Area Studies Library, and adjunct faculty member at the iSchool. She first came to the United States to attend a Human Rights Advocates Training Program at Columbia University in 1997. She earned an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies at New York University, with a focus on medieval Islam, early Shi‘ism, Islamic law, and international law. She earned an MLS at Long Island University in Information Management in 2010. She is interested in digitization and archive, and hopes to develop our Middle East collection, not only in printed materials but also in the new formats, such as digital and electronic materials. Laila’s research focuses on the preservation of cultural heritage is disaster preparedness as a preservation strategy, especially during unrest and war. She has a long-standing interest in digitization, digital humanities, open access, and data management.