One of the challenges of undertaking international cultural heritage projects is that each new working environment invariably offers unique, expected surprises in the course of implementation. As a project manager, detailed organization, a long spreadsheet, expert advice, and a little luck help me navigate these provocations. At the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME), lessons are emerging with our overseas work, including one piece of advice offered by a colleague that I will remember each time I work overseas.
In April 2019, I was invited to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for a workshop on the Protection and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage of Communities Affected by ISIS in Iraq, offered by the Smithsonian Institution at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage. During that visit, I traveled with my colleague, librarian Amed Demirhan, to the city of Sulaimani to meet with representatives of the
Kurdish Heritage Institute (KHI). The KHI has an unmatched collection of Kurdish cultural materials that embody the story of the Kurdish people in their own language, including books, audio, and video recordings. That meeting with their director, Mazhar Khaleghi, led to an application to the US Embassy in Baghdad for a grant to support the digitization the collections of the KHI as a collaborative project with the DLME. We were honored when chosen for the funding to work with the KHI as a service provider to help fulfill its priorities.
All of us associated with the DLME and CLIR felt invigorated; we would tackle an on-the-ground project that would help secure the collections of the KHI and provide digital records of their legacy. This was phase one of an effort we proposed to create the first e-book lending library in Iraq, providing access to Kurdish heritage materials to interested parties around the globe. To do that, as stipulated in the grant, we had to procure equipment, train the KHI staff, establish a metadata scheme, and digitize some 10,000 books.
Amed Demirhan and I are the co-project directors of the digitization of the KHI’s collection. We met in Erbil and at the KHI in Sulaimani September 7–14 to implement these goals, with immediate tasks to acquire computer equipment, import a Zeutschel high-speed scanner from its manufacturer in Germany, meet with our grant officers at the American Consulate in Erbil, and visit the KHI in Sulaimani, in Kurdistan near the border with Iran, to deliver equipment and train the staff in digitization and data management.
We made several salient and extensible decisions, worth adopting for other hardy cultural heritage preservationists. Andy Vaughn of the American Schools of Oriental Research and Michael Danti of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, both veterans of on-the-ground work in Iraq, recommended acquiring gear in country. We bought the computer equipment, a tabletop scanner, and associated equipment in Erbil at Digital City in the Family Mall, a place that Amed knew and trusted. Digital City had a decent variety of laptops, external drives, and a desktop we needed to pair with the Zeutschel scanner. We could avoid the import hassle, the prices were similar to those in the States, and we would have a local warranty.
The imported Zeutschel scanner was a different story. It was fabricated in Germany and required special delivery. After a series of delays and questions regarding specifications, we finally found a reliable airfreight service in Sulaimani that organized transportation from the factory in Tübingen to the KHI. The scanner arrived just in time.
Our meeting with the State Department grant officers in Erbil went very well and we made a plan to return to Kurdistan with CLIR President Charles Henry in January. In Sulaimani, we consulted with Mr. Mazhar, the KHI director, on our plans and sought his input on the project; delivered and set up equipment; and met with our first-rate team of technicians from the staff of the KHI. Amed, a former university librarian at the University of Kurdistan and the American University in Nigeria, trained our colleagues on inventory, digitization, data management, and other professional issues. These conversations and interactions were principally conducted in Kurdish. My lack of immediate language understanding underscores another lesson – the need for trust in your collaborators and a mutual commitment to the same mission-based goals.
In recent weeks we have extended staff training in equipment operation, provided for additional procedural practice, reviewed goals and workflow,
and refined a Kurdish OCR issue of accuracy pertaining to the scanner. We are beginning to digitize books from the collection and will soon know more about the sustained digitization rate we can expect, a critical statistic to calibrate our timeline.
There were of course glitches and potholes. When we went to Digital City to fetch the equipment and drive the three hours to the KHI, it wasn’t ready and the manager on duty hadn’t even heard of our order. This was resolved through several channels of communication, some more frantic than others. That minor bit of drama brings us to my final point. It comes from our colleague, Wayne Graham, the Chief Technology Officer at CLIR, who patiently listened to me talk about the details of equipment, procurement, and delivery. More than once. On challenges and uncertainty, Wayne’s last words to me before I left for Kurdistan still resonate. “Something will go wrong, Peter. And then you’ll fix it.” Excellent advice, I think, for all of us.
Peter Herdrich is project director of the Digital Library of the Middle East.
Photo of Kurdish Heritage Institute courtesy of Peter Herdrich.