The multi-year task of preserving and providing electronic access to endangered documents about Afghanistan to the global community has been arduous for University of Arizona librarians Atifa R. Rawan and Yan Han – but the benefits are becoming evident.
Through a collaboration with Nancy Hatch Dupree, an internationally known historian, and the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, or ACKU, Rawan and Han have been able to digitize hundreds of thousands of materials.
"It is important to have multiple digital copies in different locations," said Han, a UA associate librarian. "Now, the documents are safe."
If not for the collaboration with Dupree and the ACKU, which houses the largest consolidation of materials on Afghanistan’s recent history, many of the documents would be largely inaccessible.
"We take very, very good pride in this because it is an extensive and nearly complete collection," said Rawan, a retired UA librarian who continues her work on campus part-time.
The team has launched Preserving and Creating Access to Unique Afghan Records, a website housing the digital records. The project coincides with the opening of ACKU's newly constructed facility.
"The UA will have a prominence there due to our digital work, which is continuing," Rawan said.
To date, Rawan and her collaborators have digitized more than 3,500 documents and titles accessible in PDF files for about 450,000 pages of materials largely from between 1989 and 2010, providing an important service to scholars and general community members around the world.
Within the database are documents on a broad range of topics related to Afghanistan. Those topics include: demographic information related to Afghan providences and other communities, economic conditions and policies, reconstruction, climate, occupational training, immigration, the adult education of women, geography, agricultural resources and land use, infant nutrition, youth empowerment programs, hygeine, mental health and the Soviet occupation. The UA digital collection for this period is comprehensive, well-organized and publically accessible.
And it is a unique digital collection.
While the Library of Congress and New York University manage archives in the U.S., for example, a comparable digital collection covering the country during a time of war and social upheaval does not exist.
"If you would like to see these materials, you would physically have to go to Kabul," Han said.
But that poses a huge challenge. Given Afghanistan's instability, largely because of the resurgent Taliban – a nationalist group that held power in the country from 1996 to 2001 – a stable central government, economy and social order have been evasive.
One tangential consequence of the social and political unrest in Afghanistan is an increased inaccessibility to information, particularly archived information, Rawan and Han said, noting that the problem dates back further than the last decade and well into the late 1970s.
Since then, numerous academic and government libraries have been ruined or shut down.
"There are a lot of people who have left Afghanistan, and this will be an important resource for them, as well as anyone who, for whatever reason, are not able to return to Afghanistan," said UA Libraries Dean Carla Stoffle. "So the materials will be important for scholarship and for helping a country document its history and legacy."
And while the UA and ACKU each maintain physical files, Stoffle also emphasized the importance of the materials being digitized.
"When you house something physically, you have to know where it is and how to get to it. But there are a lot of people in this world who can't do that," Stoffle said. "By making them available electronically through open access, everyone, potentially, can use the materials. And if there is a change in government, we won't lose this information again."
The digitization project has involved the preservation of newspapers, monographs, almanacs, yearbooks, serial publications, books and other materials in the Dari and Pashto languages as well as English.
To receive the documents, the UA and ACKU staff had to wait until someone within their networks had international travel planned. At that point, the traveler would be provided with a hard drive with scans that needed to then be digitized and archived at the UA.
Han also said one major boon to the project has been a connection with UA professor Emeritus Ludwig Adamec of the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. The team has been digitizing a portion of Adamec's personal library, such as original newspaper prints and his own volumes of the "Historical and Political Gazetteer of Afghanistan."
Also of note, the team has been able to access and digitize numerous editions of "Anis," a Dari language newspaper from 1940s, and of the "Kabul Times," a newspaper in Afghanistan printed in English.
The team also digitized government "yearbooks," which were documents released on an annual basis from the 1930s that described on the government-sponsored social, political and cultural happenings of the year.
"We can't just assume we know how other countries are working. You have to understand the people and their culture," Han said, emphasizing the importance of preserving the documents and other materials. "You also need to know how changes have occurred over time."
The next phase for the UA team will be to convert the existing PDF files into searchable documents and to continue to offer training and support to the ACKU staff.
"They have come a long way, and they are becoming leaders in Afghanistan," Rawan said, adding that while that work continues, the existing benefit remains undeniable.
"In the last 11 years, the U.S. has become more involved in Afghanistan with lots of news coming through the U.S., and people have more and more questions," Rawan said.
"The world is so interconnected. What we are doing is trying to bring some kind of understanding of the cultural, social and political information about this country," she said. "We are really working to facilitate research capabilities for our students and scholars as well as others around the world."