University of Oregon


The NEH/DFG Enriching Digital Collections Grant (2010-2013)

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 50,000 codices, many of which are unique. These sources record a rich cultural legacy of Arabic and Islamic literature from the eighth century to the present. Because Yemen is relatively remote from the central lands of Islam, it has preserved many extremely rare sources, including some of the earliest extant Qur’an fragments and theological tracts, and works of great importance for the study of classical Islam, Arabic literature, science, and history. Ready access to these largely neglected sources would generate a tremendous amount of new knowledge and provide new perspectives on the political, intellectual, and literary history of Islamic civilization.

But this irreplaceable trove of manuscripts is threatened. In recent years, Yemen’s private libraries have suffered great losses, in part due to sectarian 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.

The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Initiative (YMDI) is a collective of leading scholars of classical Islam, Middle Eastern history, and Arabic Literature from North America, Europe, and the Middle East whose mission is to preserve the Arabic manuscripts in the private libraries of Yemen. Led by Director Dr. David Hollenberg (University of Oregon), in 2010, received a $330,000 NEH/DFG Enriching Digital Collections grant shared between Princeton University Library (PI, David Magier) and the Freie Universität, Berlin (PI Sabine Schmidtke).

[I have removed the name of our Yemeni partners for precautionary reasons due to the ongoing conflict and attacks on cultural heritage inside Yemen. David Hollenberg, January, 2016.]


In the 28 months of the grant (2010-2013)

1. YMDI  digitally preserved three private libraries in the capital city of Sana’a, a total
of 236 manuscripts.

2. YMDI  digitized twelve additional manuscripts in the rare book collections of the
Staatsbibliothek and the Princeton University Library.

3. YMDI  used the the digital-library infrastructure developed at Princeton to create
freely accessible repository of Yemeni manuscripts from collections in Yemen, the US, and Germany.

The goal of this phase of the project has been to create an infrastructure through which manuscripts identified as important by its advisory board can be digitally preserved and disseminated in the coming years. By channeling and combining institutional resources which already exist, YMDI will help save a crucially important manuscript collection for Islamic civilization study that is in imminent danger.

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