The Scientific Institute in Cairo has been burned. It was the second oldest such institute outside Europe, after the one in Philadelphia. Some 200,000 rare books and manuscripts are abruptly gone. The military government of Egypt allegedly stationed snipers atop the building, who fired on demonstrators, putting the Scientific Institute in the crossfire of Egypt’s current political struggle.
I discussed this institute, founded by Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, in my book, Napoleon’s Egypt.
The loss of all these historical materials points to the dire need for the digitization of such collections without delay. Google is doing large scale digitization of printed books, but most of them exist in multiple copies in various repositories. It is hand written manuscripts that need to be digitized, since often there are only one or two copies surviving and they are easily lost.
We lost much of the intellectual history of Najaf, Iraq, during the savage attack on that Shiite holy city by Saddam Hussein’s forces in spring of 1991. We lost much of the 20th century history of Iraq when the cabinet papers were burned during the Bush invasion, when SecDef Donald Rumsfeld declined to stop the looting, a crime I called cliocide.
When I was working in the Egyptian Archives and the Egyptian National Library in the 1980s, I pleaded with the American University in Cairo librarian to find a way to get more rare materials microfilmed, but he couldn’t see how that was AUC’s responsibility. It isn’t, but it is not as if the Mubarak family was interested in manuscript preservation, so who else would do it?
The Egyptian government has moved the country’s archives to a building on the Nile near the television station. This move was most unwise, since the building is not air conditioned and that area is very humid. They had been held up at the Citadel, which was drier and better. Moreover, that building is also worryingly near some of the violence that has occurred. In any case, the documents desperately need to be digitized. Some are already deteriorating, being eaten by pests or even rats.
Organizations interested in the world’s historical heritage need to drop everything and promote large scale digitization of these collections. It wouldn’t be that expensive and nowadays can be done quickly.
We are all diminished, we human beings, when a good book winks forever out of existence, or when a large swathe of human experience is irrevocably lost.