16 March 2023

The Oriental libraries project : an update


A new partnership was signed in Paris in November 2021 between the Custody of the Holy Land and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF). One year later, how far has this project got?

By signing this new agreement, the Custody joined the Oriental Libraries project of the BNF. This is a collaborative trilingual (French, English and Arabic) digital library, consecrated to the historical exchanges between Europe and the Near/Middle East. In concrete terms, this library, launched in 2016, allows anyone to access thousands of documents from the collections of the BNF and those of its many partners, one of the first of which was the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.

Four collections to digitize

In view of the long experience of the Franciscan friars in the Holy Land for 800 years, the BNF had wanted to work with the Custody of the Holy Land for a long time. The Father Custos Francesco Patton, accompanied by friar Stéphane Milovitch, director of the Cultural Heritage department of the Custody, thus went to the seat of the French institution in Paris at the end of November 2021 to confirm this new partnership.

Considering the extremely large number of documents that the Custody has, they decided to limit the first project of digitization to four collections: the books of the former pharmacy of St Saviour, those of the Franciscan Printing Press (founded in 1847 in Jerusalem), the photos on glass plates belonging to the Custody and part of its firmans (Orders issued by an oriental Muslim ruler).

To successfully implement this project, Blandine Paillart, coordinator of the project and a volunteer with the Catholic Delegation for Cooperation, and Maya Abou Hani, a Palestinian from Jerusalem and currently a student of communication studies at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, arrived at the Custody at the same time. Both were trained, remotely, by the BNF teams, in digitization and the metadata which, here, will act as an identity card for the digitized books. The first stage of the work was the selection of the books to be digitized as part of the project.

In addition to the digitization of the books selected by the BNF, the digitization material allowed making images of sometimes very old books for the needs of the Custody itself and of the Terra Sancta Museum. All the “condotte” books (registers of gifts to the Custody) were digitized making it much easier to study them.

Digitization began with the books of the former pharmacy of the friars, one of the most important in the Middle East. Already greatly studied, about twenty books from the pharmacy’s collection were nevertheless selected. They are books on missionary medicine or books on medicine as it was practised in Jerusalem, such as Twenty years of medical service to Palestine (1918-1938), a report written in 1939 by the Hadassah medical organization. These books were selected because they are an account of what medicine in the Holy Land was, not only through the work of the hospitals but also through the missionary work of the friars. The books were chosen by the BNF teams taking into account whether or not a digitization existed and how relevant the subject was in relation to the initial project (exchanges between Europe and the Near East).

The former pharmacy

The Franciscan Printing Press

This second collection consists of more than 2000 documents for almost 5000 pages! This is where the work became more intense with the need to take into account the books that were not classified by the Library of the Custody and which were stored in several dozen cardboard boxes.

The vast majority of these books, dating from before 1965, have never been digitized. The Franciscan Printing Press is particularly interesting as many of the books are directly concerned with the life of the friars in the Holy Land as well as local life. Books on archaeology from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, letters from the Custos sent to all the convents of the province, textbooks to learn Arabic or Italian, 19th century travel guides, booklets of liturgical songs in Arabic or books for the officers in Palestine under the British mandate (1920-1948). These books relate the evolution of the country, its language, its traditions and customs and the history of the Custody of the Holy Land. This is the case of the Album Terrae Sanctae, published in 1941, and which consists entirely of photos of the different Holy Places. It lets us realize the changes that have taken place in 80 years.

A project that is being constantly enriched

In September 2022, Christina Bullata joined the project as head of digitization. It was then that a first batch of documents was sent, with about 14,000 images. The aim is to reach 25,000 images by the end of the partnership. The digitization has definitely taken off!

At present, the digitization of the books of the Franciscan Printing Press continues. The next goal is to begin digitizing the photos on glass plates, eagerly awaited by all the team in Paris and in Jerusalem. In parallel, the Custody has been asked by the French School of Biblical Studies and Archaeology in Jerusalem to digitize some of their works, also for the Oriental Libraries project. Amongst the thirty or so books concerned there is in particular an “Atlas of general geography of Palestine”, written by Z. Khanzadian in 1932 and published for the United Nations (see on the right). The partnership with the BNF will extend until November 2023, pending the visit in loco of the BNF teams.

(Translated from French by Joan Rudo)

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