Balancing conservation decisions - preserving material evidence of original structures and repair techniques in a Yemeni manuscripts digitizaion project

  • Karin Scheper
Keywords: Conservation, Decision Making, Codicology, Regional-specific Features, Materiality, Local mends, Digitisation, Yemeni manuscripts


Because of the war in Yemen, that has devastated effects on the cities and villages, the population and their cultural heritage, the manuscript collections in Yemen are in peril, and inaccessible to researchers. Therefore, a digitisation project was initiated by the German Arabist Sabine Schmidtke, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton: ‘The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition: A Digital Portal’. A number of European and American collections of Yemeni manuscripts will be made freely available on the internet. It concerns relatively small but important collections of Yemeni manuscripts, mostly collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by scholars, dip-lomats and travellers. Leiden University Libraries (UBL) is one of the participating libraries. The collection of circa 150 Yemeni manuscripts is in the process of being digitized, and this work was preceded by a physical survey and conservation pro-ject. A previous assessment of Leiden’s collection of manuscripts in Arabic script had pointed out that Yemeni books have characteristics that help to distinguish them from other traditions of the Middle East. In addition, the manuscripts from Yemen are in particular dire condition. How would interventive conservation serve the project and safeguard this specific Yemeni binding tradition at the same time? How can historic repairs be integrated in conservation treatments?
Though the Yemeni manuscripts are the focus in this talk, the paper reflects on the effect of digitisation on the use and value of the physical manuscripts, and the com-plexity of conservation decision-making in general. As the texts become accessible 24/7, the originals become all the more important for critical material evidence. The manuscript production in Yemen, like in many other areas, is characterised by sever-al regional-specific materials and techniques. Conservation dilemmas also concern the native repairs. The local interventions provide information on what materials and knowledge on the craft of bookbinding was available, how aesthetics mattered, and they underline the importance and value of the artefacts themselves. The impact of the materiality will be illustrated using examples from the Leiden collection ranging from the 14th to early 20th century.