Digital Proposal: Creating a Digital Repository of Syrian Archival Material

Project Description: As the Arab Spring rocked the social and political foundations of the Middle East, many foreign and internal observers alike believed that Syria would survive the storm with their regime intact. In March 2011, however, protests broke out in the city of Deraa after the regime arrested and tortured several schoolchildren for writing anti-regime graffiti on the wall. As government repression and violence escalated, so did opposition to the Assad regime, soon plunging the country into a civil war that continues to this day.

The consequences of this conflict have been numerous and devastating. The human cost of the war alone has been enormous. According to the World Bank, the death toll has risen to almost 500,000 since 2011, with 5 million seeking refugee abroad and 6.3 million internally displaced. Syrian cultural heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed by military bombardments and deliberate targeted destruction carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The violence and unsafe conditions have also prevented travel to the area. The U.S. State Department has issued a warning advising all private citizens against travel to Syria “due to terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict.”

The on-going conflict poses significant problems for researches of Syrian history. While conducting research there has never been an easy process, with language barriers and government censorship, the current conflict has made it next to impossible. So what options are available to scholars or even the general public interested in learning from Syrian archives?

The idea for this project came to me while I was meeting with my advisor in my second week at AU. In the corner of her office, she had several boxes stacked in the corner. She said that they contained documents from Damascus that she had collected for research on her previous book. She commented that she should probably digitize them because it didn’t look like people would have access to that archive any time soon. How many other scholars of Syrian history have had similar thoughts?

My digital project will create an online archive of historical material from Syria. I will use Omeka to develop a digital archive to house documents and artifacts collected by scholars. As a crowdsourcing project, the targeted volunteers are a small group. I will begin by contacting scholars of Syria in the surrounding area to determine if they possess documents from Syrian archives and if they would be willing to digitize them.

Audience: The audience for this project are historians, academics, and researchers interested in studying Syrian history but are unable to visit the Syrian archives due to current circumstances.

Existing Projects: Several projects have focused on documenting the civil war itself. One such project is the Syrian Archive, which is dedicated to collecting visual documentation of human rights violations in Syria that is “transparent, detailed, and reliable.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum also has an exhibit dedicated to keeping the Syrian crisis present in the minds of the public.

Other projects have explored digital methods for preserving Syria’s cultural heritage. Arachne is a site launched by the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute and the Museum of Islamic Art dedicated to creating an online archive of Syrian cultural objects. UNESCO has been similarly involved in generating international awareness of the destruction of “built, movable, and intangible” heritage in Syria.

The Wilson Center Digital Archive of declassified Cold War documents has provided a model for this project. While this project is funded and run by the History and Public Policy Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the concept has provided inspiration. Documents are digitized and sometimes translated from all over the world, including the former Soviet bloc, giving scholars access to information that would normally remain out of reach due to language barriers and travel constraints.

Plan for Outreach and Publicity: My first avenue of outreach will be to scholars of Syrian history in the surrounding area. I will expand my geographical reach from there. I will also reach out to organizations dedicated to the study of the Middle East, such as the Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) for critical feedback on organization and publicity outreach.

Evaluation Plan: A successful project will collect material from several sources and to successfully communicate with Middle Eastern research institutes to discuss outreach opportunities.

Citations

The Syrian Archive – https://syrianarchive.org/en

iDAI.objects arachne – https://arachne.dainst.org/project/syrher#Browse_project_content

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide/syria

Observatory of Syrian Culture – https://en.unesco.org/syrian-observatory/

Wilson Center Digital Archives – https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/

One Reply to “Digital Proposal: Creating a Digital Repository of Syrian Archival Material”

  1. This is a great idea. I think making an archive like this and digitizing documents and hosting them in Omeka would be a great resource.

    With that noted, it would likely also be worth considering if you might also, or potentially instead, create an archive of born digital materials.

    You can use tools like webrecorder or Archive-it to create web archives, archives of online materials. Web content from Syria is likely at significant risk of loss. Particularly sites and documents and resources created and shared in Syria.

    American university’s library has and uses an Archive-It account already, so if you did want to do this project, there is a good chance that you might be able to get them to let you use their instance of the tool to start up a digital collection like this. If you did go in that route, you could then focus on reaching out to different groups and organizations to get people to suggest sites and resources and things like social media feeds to the collect and archive.

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