Digitized manuscripts: a call to the mysterious world of old books

Digitized manuscripts: 
   a call to the mysterious world of old books

May 04, 2008, Sunday/ 12:12:00/ KERİM BALCI
A manuscript is far more valuable than a printed book. While an e-mail includes no extra value other than the work of the author and a printed book offers only the text created by the author and the page and cover design articulated on computers, a manuscript contains the artistic touches of several people: the author, the copier, the gilder, the marbling artist and the bookbinder.

A less widely known, but nonetheless valuable, story told by the manuscripts is contained in the fevaid, the marginalia of a manuscript, added mainly by the copier. These footnotes and marginal comments around the frame of the pages tell about historical or personal events that took place during the copying or reading of the book.

Niyazi Ünver, a National Library official who manages the manuscripts department, believes that these fevaid explain why people regard the manuscripts stored in their local libraries as such valuable cultural assets. "Usually the person on the street does not read these manuscripts, but they know that on the edge of one of them the birthday of their great grandfather is recorded or that somewhere in the pages of this or that book there is a note that several hundred years ago it hailed so heavily that the hailstones were as large as eggs. This is local information, and it belongs to the region. The book may be a Quranic commentary, but the fevaid added to it belong to that region. It is understandable that people prefer to keep these manuscripts within their cities," he says.

Ünver's remarks are an attempt to explain the resistance the Ministry of Culture and Tourism faced in cities such as Amasya and Safranbolu in the past when gathering manuscripts stored in libraries across Turkey to store them at three well-guarded centers. According to the background information Tuncel Acar, the president of the National Library, provided for Sunday's Zaman, in 1992 the Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a regulation asking that local libraries holding manuscripts and old printed books send them to the country's three central libraries in İstanbul, Konya and Ankara. The regulation was a response to the increasing number of thefts, fires and floods that threatened the manuscripts. Acar is proud of the current status of the manuscript collection in the National Library, which has incorporated the collections of the city libraries of Adana, Çankırı, Balıkesir, Tokat and some other private libraries. "Just from the Adnan Ötüken Library alone, which used to be in Kızılay, we received about 5,000 manuscripts," Ünver adds.

Both Acar and Ünver remember the bad old times, exemplified by an incident in which they were stoned by locals in Safranbolu when they went to collect the manuscripts stored in the city library. "The people were not able to understand the priority of protecting the books themselves over protecting them in their own city," Acar explains.

The story of the Amasya city library is even more dramatic. Back in 1992 the governor of Amasya objected to the idea of sending the city's manuscripts to Ankara, claiming that the history of one city cannot be sent to another. The National Library informed the Governor's Office that their intention was to preserve the books until the Amasya library met the necessary technical and security standards for storing valuable manuscripts. The Governor's Office refused, and one night the library was robbed. Some time later the books were found buried in the garden of an infamous smuggler of historical artifact in İstanbul. The books were brought to the National Library in the end, but only after having suffered irreversible damage. "We cleaned and repaired some of the books, and when the Amasya library was brought to the necessary standards, we sent them back to the city where they belonged," Acar explains regretfully.

Manuscripts are not only valuable antiquities; they are also sources of information for researchers. But while researchers are the ones who put the manuscripts in the spotlight, most of the harm done to manuscripts also comes from them. "Some may even tear pages out of manuscripts, but the real harm is done by the moisture on their fingers while turning the pages," Ünver explains.

But the days when researchers would touch the pages of the manuscripts are now gone. In cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and other libraries bound to the ministry, the National Library is running a project to digitalize Turkey's manuscripts. "The project started in 2004 with about 1,200 manuscripts out of the 27,000 we have here in the National Library. In the following years we photographed more than 9,000 volumes yearly, and today we are left with only 1,500 volumes to digitize. Researchers can reach these digital copies on our Web site at," Ünver told Sunday's Zaman.


Similar projects are being run in Konya, İstanbul and Amasya, and the National Library has combined them all within the same database. Today users can search for the catalogue entries of more than 198.000 manuscripts. In total, the site hosts downloadable high resolution digital copies of 73,793 manuscripts. "This comes to about 6 million photographs and, if we remember that every photograph corresponds to two pages, this means 12 million pages of manuscripts," Ünver further explains. He proudly announces that this was the first such project in the Muslim world and the largest of its kind in the whole world. But he is not so enthusiastic about the number of users taking advantage of the Web site.

When the Web site was created, it was a multilingual site with Russian and Persian in addition to the expected languages of Turkish, Arabic and English. Today the site is only available in Turkish and Arabic, and this certainly reduces the number of users. "We are working on putting English back into the pages," Ünver says.

Most researchers still feel more comfortable with the actual manuscripts. Acar recalls many people coming to him asking for a favor, wanting to see and touch the 1,000-year-old pages of a Greek Bible that was found in İstanbul during the Ottoman Sultanate of Mehmet the Conqueror. "This is a treasure in itself, and no real study has been done on it yet," Acar says.

The archives of the National Library are assumed to be protected from fire and conditions that may damage these ancient manuscripts. But this hasn't actually been done yet. Acar is looking for funds to modernize the archive. Under his initiative the National Library has recently established a "book hospital" that employs three chemists and a biologist. The manuscripts are cleaned of dust and fungus, the copper strips that were used to decorate the pages are replaced with magnesium and torn parts of the paper sheets are repaired with ancient methods of paper production. Esra Mert, the head of the book hospital, says that a book of about 150 pages takes three months to "cure." Fungus is one of their prime enemies. In order to fight fungus they literally wash the pages with diluted alcohol. Acar complains that he does not have the financial means to hire more of these book doctors. "This is an expensive project, and we have thousands of manuscripts waiting for attention up in the archive," he says. With the average time of three months to repair a book, it will take more than 1,000 years for the current book hospital to repair the entire collection.

A further challenge for the library is the increasing number of manuscripts. The library not only receives donations from private collectors but also buys manuscripts. Ünver is proud to mention a name like Fahri Bilge, whose inheritors sold his library 628 volumes of manuscripts. Dr. Abdullah Öztemiz, who is still alive and has a large collection of manuscripts gathered during years of service in different cities of Anatolia has also sold manuscripts to the library. "This is an invaluable service to the nation. Most of those manuscripts would have been lost if these people didn't protect them," Ünver says, adding that the National Library and other libraries affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism are the final buyers of manuscripts in Turkey. "Unaware of the value of the manuscripts they hold, people go to old book brokers and lose quite a lot of money because they didn't come to us first," he says.

A final complaint Ünver has is about the decidedly non-academic intent of some of the people who come and want to work on the manuscripts. "Books of magic, spells and secret sciences have quite an attraction. This shouldn't be what the new generation looks for in the heritage of earlier generations," he says.