NEW YORK, April 25 (UPI) -- The recent destruction by looters of the contents of the Iraq National Library in Baghdad recalled the loss of tens of thousands of books in Afghanistan's Kabul Library and Kabul University Library during Taliban rule in the 1990s.
This earlier loss is being addressed by scholars at New York University who have made a project of digitizing all books printed in Afghanistan between 1871 and 1930, cataloging them, and making them available to the public electronically. A Web site will be established with a list of rare books for the benefit of Afghani scholars throughout the world.
The unprecedented effort to save a nation's entire printed output has been announced by Carol A. Mandel, dean of the Division of Libraries at NYU. She said the university has just begun to raise the $1.5 million needed for the digitizing books, four out of five of which are in Persian and the remainder in Pashto, an Afghan language.
In addition to books, historic photographs, learned journals and geographic surveys, newspapers, government documents and manuscripts will ultimately be included in the project.
Printing was generally unknown in Afghanistan prior to 1871 because the only press in existence was controlled by the government and rarely used. According to Islamic tastes of the time, manuscripts were held in much higher esteem than printed documents.
The 1930 cap date for the project was selected because books printed later than that were widely available and can be found in a number of libraries abroad as well as in Afghani private collections, Mandel said.
The editor of the digital project is Robert D. McChesney, a professor of Middle
Eastern studies at NYU. He said material in the first phase of the project for the years 1871 to 1900 includes the poems of 17th century Afghan poet, Ayishah-i Durrani, many law books and regulations on prophets and prophecy, tax laws, marriage laws, accounting, and a rare volume on how to wage jihad.
"There has been all this material residing in bits and pieces all over the world, McChesney told United Press International. "By bringing it together in one place where it can be preserved and can be accessible, scholars as well as people in Afghanistan don't have to rely on someone coming in to tell them that part of their history."
Relating the situation as it might apply to the United States, he added: "Imagine if we didn't know there was a Constitution or didn't have a printed record of it."
McChesney said that many early works reflect Afghanistan's first attempts at creating a cadre of laws and administrators for the nation and will play an important role in defining a country that for too long has been shrouded in mystery. Afghanistan has been an independent nation since the 1700s despite British attempts as late as 1919 to subdue it and the 1979 invasion by Russia.
According to McChesney, the number of books that will be available on a Web site and by CD-ROM will be small, no larger that 450 depending on titles that ongoing bibliographic research unearths in various libraries, institutions, and private collections around the world. At first this electronic library will be more of interest to scholars than to the Afghans themselves, where the current literacy rate is only about 10 percent.
"But that will change with reconstruction of the country," McChesney said. "It's the best thing we can offer Afghanistan at this stage of reconstruction. It offers the past, and the past is the course to the present.