- Article by: COLUMBA STEWART
- Updated: September 16, 2012 - 5:48 PM
Threatened manuscripts must be digitized. (Ashes teach us nothing.)
Walter M. Miller Jr.'s 1960 novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" imagined a world hundreds of years in the future in which an order of Catholic monks devotes itself to recovering the fragments of human literary culture left after nuclear war. As we read about the destruction of cultural heritage in Timbuktu, home of some of the most important libraries of the Muslim world, track the progress of war and ethnic violence across the Middle East, and contemplate a nuclear-armed Iran, Miller's novel seems eerily prophetic.
Manuscripts -- handwritten books and ancient archival records -- are especially vulnerable in such conflicts. Unlike printed books, each manuscript is unique and irreplaceable. Once lost, there is no way to recover what it contained. Each manuscript has a story about who created it, who read it, who cared for it. Each of those people leaves a mark: the text itself, written by hand; the scribe's note of when and where it was copied; the reader's notes; the stamps or seals of the libraries or individuals who cared for it.