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In Secret Kept, In Silence Sealed: revealing the hidden texts in Early Arabic Printed Books from the British Library

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Elinor Hawkes

I joined Gale in December 2014 as Digital Product Editor, working particularly on our Early Arabic Printed Books from the British Library and Stuart & Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives projects. I’m a qualified archivist and before joining Gale I worked in the Universities sector for nearly 10 years, so I’m delighted to continue working with Archives and Academics in a role that has broadened my horizons and introduced me to new challenges.

As an archivist, I firmly believe that preservation and access are two sides of the same coin; one cannot happen without the other. This is particularly true during digitisation projects, and on collections such as Early Arabic Printed Books from the British Library where a large body of material is being made widely accessible for the first time, we have worked closely with a conservator from the British Library to ensure material is protected during scanning.

The project means that many early Arabic books will be available online for the very first time, but for some books it is not just their digital version that will be available; some of them had never been readable before, and required conservator intervention before the text could be revealed. Here are some of my favourite examples:

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محمد قادر-بخش سهسرامي، الأربعون في إشاعة مراسم الدين
[Muḥammad Qādir-Bakhsh Sahasrāmī, ‘al-Arbaʿūn fī ishāʿat marāsim al-dīn’], Lucknow 1883

This collection of religious traditions with Hindustani commentary had very fragile pages due to the high level of acidity in the paper. It’s pages were also still “bolted”, which meant that they hadn’t been cut as part of the binding process, and so couldn’t be opened. It would have been very difficult for anyone to read the physical copy of this book prior to this project, but the conservator was able to support the fragile pages during scanning and cut the bolted ones, making this text accessible for the first time.

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حمائل شريف معري
[Ḥamāʾil sharīf maʿarrī], Delhi 1890

This beautiful Qur’an contains several pages of ornate calligraphy. Like the work above, this Qur’an also had “bolted” pages before the conservator got to work. Now that the pages have been cut, this exquisite detail is finally viewable as the calligrapher intended.

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كيداني، خلاصة كيداني مع ترجمة أفغاني
[Kaydānī, ‘Khulāṣat Kaydānī maʿa tarjamah Afghānī’], Delhi 1882

This page is absolutely covered in text! This is a prayer book in Arabic, with commentary on the margins and a Pushto interlineary translation. Not only was this book bolted as the two above, it was also very heavily creased and required flattening by the conservator. Anyone trying to use the physical copy would have found it impossible to read all the text with the creases and uncut pages, as it’s so densely written.

In order for content to be accessible, it has to be preserved. In order for it to be preserved, it has to be accessible. It is gratifying to know that through our efforts with the British Library, the hidden texts within these books can be enjoyed now for the first time, and for generations to come.