Documents destroyed by the extremes of wet conditions and insect infestations in Mizoram – said to be the wettest place on the planet - northeast India. Endangered Archives Programme. Photography © Dr Kyle Jackson

Documents destroyed by extreme weather conditions and insect infestations in Mizoram, said to be the wettest place on the planet, in northeast India. (courtesy the Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Dr. Kyle Jackson)

Despite the vast and growing resources available online, much of the world’s knowledge and history remains ephemeral and under threat of disappearance. Since 2004, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, supported by the Arcadia Fund, has funded nearly 246 projects in 78 countries to preserve and digitize archives at risk of extinction.

Digitizing the written legacy of northeastern India’s Ahom Kingdom manuscripts written in the Tai Ahom script, no longer used in daily life (courtesy the Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Dr. Stephen Morey) (click to enlarge)

Four million images from this initiative are now available online. To mark the milestone and over a decade of the program, the British Library announced in a press release the release of From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme. The publication, free to read online, chronicles 19 of the major preservation projects, including monastic manuscripts in Ethiopia, ecclesiastical archives on the history of slavery in Colombia and Brazil, and the sound archives of Radio Télévision Guinée and Iranian Golha radio.

Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library, said in the release that at “a time when wars and civil emergencies too frequently put archives and library collections at risk, the work the [British] Library does to support fellow institutions around the world during and after conflicts is becoming more urgent than ever.” Maja Kominko, cultural grants manager at the Arcadia Fund and editor of From Dust to Digital, added that “documents, manuscripts, photographs and recordings that capture much of the world’s memory are preserved in vulnerable and often inaccessible collections around the globe. If they perish part of history is irrevocably lost.”

Working on glass plate negatives of the Middle East dating back to the 1860s, taken by the Maison Bonfils in Beirut (courtesy the Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Yasmine Chemali)

Talismans on how to be loved in Djenné public library, Mali (courtesy Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Sophie Sarin)

The four million images from the program are fascinatingly diverse, both in their material and what threatened their survival. There are newspapers and magazines from 20th-century Palestineearly professional photography in Mali from the 1940s–60s, and rock inscriptions from the Tadrart Acacus mountains in Libya, which have been damaged by increased visitors and oil exploration and extraction. LGBTQ publications from Thailand dating to the 1970s were in danger of being destroyed or disappearing since no Thai or foreign archive was collecting them. Palm leaf manuscripts up to 700 years old from Kerala, India, covering everything from science to history, were falling to pieces; program workshops have since introduced new measures to safeguard them. According to the Endangered Archives blog: “Until recently, consigning manuscripts into the sea or river on auspicious days was considered the best practice to preserve them, to avoid the sin of witnessing their decay.”

The program has also had a major focus on Islamic manuscripts in Djenné, part of those under threat in Mali due to the recent tumultuous political climate. You can see all the projects here, organized by region, and keep an eye on the Endangered Archives Programme blog, where new additions are posted to this online collection of the world’s most fragile memories.

Priests of May Wäyni monastery with their manuscripts, Ethiopia (courtesy the Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Professor Michael Gervers)

Documents found in the remote hills of Mizoram, northeast India (courtesy the Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Dr. Kyle Jackson)

A new manuscript arrives at Djenné public library. (courtesy the Endangered Archives Programme, photo by Sophie Sarin)

View all four million images from the Endangered Archives Programme on the British Library’s site. From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme is available to read for free online. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...