Rare Books Staff From American U. of Cairo Help Restore Burned Institut d’Égypte Documents

Posted on December 27, 2011 by


From the News@AUC Post:

The Rare Books and Special Collections Library and Archives (RBSCL) sent nine of its staff members last week to assist Dar El Kutub [Egyptian National Library] in the salvaging of books and documents damaged during the recent fire at the Institut d’Egypte. These volunteers, who are experienced in handling rare and fragile materials, helped to identify what items might be retrievable.

“Tragically, the damage sustained was considerable, representing a great loss to the cultural history of Egypt,” said Philip Croom, associate dean of RBSCL. “However, the RBSCL professional conservation team is willing to work closely with Dar El Kutub for some time to help in the restoration of those items that can be saved.”

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Describing the process, Croom explained that sorting salvageable from lost items starts with drying out everything on newspapers and sheets in the garden, and then categorizing them in the hope of being able to reassemble a book or its parts some day. “It’s long, tiring and discouraging, given the magnitude of the burned items,” said Croom, adding that a typical work day involves two shifts of five to eight hours, with two or more RBSCL volunteers.

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Reflecting on the importance of digitally archiving documents, Croom said, “This experience is not only an opportunity to help out a fellow library and lend what is real expertise in saving Egypt’s cultural heritage, but is also a wake-up call to all of us to endeavor to make digital surrogates of our documents and other archival collections because they contain unique information available in no other format. Rare books are seldom single copies, so we assume that books lost in this fire have ‘brothers and sisters’ in London, Paris or Rome published at the same time. But original primary sources? Lost forever. I have heard that unedited books, documents or parts of books and documents were among the holdings [caught in the fire], things like personal accounts from centuries past. If true, then the loss is all the greater.”

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