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NEH award supports development of digital manuscript collection

We finally have an opportunity to make the contents of these manuscripts available to a wider audience. But that is just the beginning. ”

Esmeralda Kale
George & Mary LeCron Foster Curator of the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a  planning grant to Northwestern’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to pilot a digital collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa in English translation.   

The collection, called Maktaba (meaning “library” in Arabic), will display images of selected manuscripts from the UIUC and NU libraries, alongside English translations and essays that provide historical and cultural context for each manuscript.  

The project joins the rich West African Arabic manuscript holdings of the two universities’ libraries, which include over 7,000 works in prose and verse written by African Muslims in Arabic and in ʿAjami (African languages written in an enriched Arabic script) dating from the 19th through the mid-20th centuries. With works from Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana, the collections constitute the largest set of African Arabic manuscripts available in North America. Products of a longstanding tradition of reading, writing, and intellectual production in West Africa, they counter stereotypes of Africa as a continent that lacked written traditions before the arrival of Europeans. 

Maktaba’s purpose is to make the contents of these manuscripts more accessible, legible, and teachable for non-specialists. “Researchers from around the world have used manuscripts from the Northwestern and UIUC collections for their scholarship for over four decades,” notes ISITA associate director Rebecca Shereikis. “Maktaba will introduce these materials—and Africa’s Arabic manuscript culture more broadly—to English-speaking students and a broader public.” The manuscripts displayed in Maktaba will connect with a range of humanities themes, be suitable for undergraduate teaching, and accessible to the public. The Maktaba website will serve as a unified resource that will make it easy for a variety of users to learn about, examine, and engage with the manuscripts held by the UIUC and NU Libraries. 

The interdisciplinary Maktaba team is led by Mauro Nobili (history, UIUC), who will serve as project director and Zekeria Ahmed Salem (political science and ISITA director), who will serve as principal investigator for Northwestern’s portion of the grant. Additional Northwestern team members include Rebecca Shereikis, ISITA associate director; Esmeralda Kale, George and Mary LeCron Foster Curator, Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies ; and Carolyn Caizzi, Head of Repository and Digital Curation at NU Libraries, who will coordinate the work of library staff in preservation, digitization, and other areas.

At the end of the two-year planning grant period (which begins in June 2022), the Maktaba digital collection will be publicly available, populated with a sample set of twenty manuscripts, translations, and contextual essays.  The team will use the planning period to test concepts and establish processes that will guide expansion of the project after the NEH grant ends.  

"We finally have an opportunity to make the contents of these manuscripts available to a wider audience,” said Herskovits Library Curator, Esmeralda Kale. “But that is just the beginning. This project paves the way for comparative studies and critical conversations in a multitude of subject areas, work which until now has been hindered due to access to and, indeed, even the knowledge of, these truly unique materials."  

The award for “Building Maktabawas one of 245 grants awarded by the NEH in its April 2022 funding cycle for humanities projects across the country. Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.  

A version of this article also appeared in Program of African Studies News and Events, Spring 2022, Volume 32, No. 3.