Reading Holy Kur'an

Read, Hot, and Digitized: KITAB Project Brings Distant Reading to Middle Eastern Studies  

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship.  Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.

The KITAB Project, headed by Sarah Bowen Savant of the Aga Khan University, seeks to develop tools and techniques for producing scholarship on text reuse and intellectual networks in the premodern Arabic textual tradition. The project is based on a digital corpus of published texts that represent all genres of writing in Arabic from the earliest works to the beginning of the 20th century CE. Although the corpus draws in part from digital databases of texts, it also relies heavily on digital surrogates of printed volumes which require Optical Character Recognition (OCR) for computational analysis. The KITAB project has partnered with the Open Islamicate Text Initiative to develop an OCR software that has proven more successful than commercially-available products. The collaboration’s published results of this OCR development—called Kraken—can be found here.

A snapshot of initial results using the Kraken OCR software
A snapshot of initial results using the Kraken OCR software

The KITAB project is noteworthy not only for bringing the concepts of text reuse and distant reading to Middle Eastern Studies from a digital humanities perspective, but also for its development of tools designed for Arabic script languages. The needs of right-to-left and non-Roman script languages such as Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Hebrew—namely bidirectionality and non-Roman script recognition capabilities—unfortunately have been neglected to date in key tools utilized by highly successful digital humanities projects. The KITAB project brings the necessity of right-to-left and non-Roman capabilities to the fore by centering the Arabic textual tradition and committing to the development of tools that best meet the needs of the questions asked.

In addition to Dr. Savant, the team behind the KITAB project includes scholars from the U.S. and Europe, notably David Smith (Northeastern University) who developed the passim software upon which the text reuse project is based, and Maxim Romanov (University of Vienna) who heads the Open Islamicate Text Initiative. The team supports the continuing evolution of algorithms that seek to determine which Arabic texts were most quoted, most used by historians, and most commented on over several centuries (roughly 700-1500 CE). These questions might be answered simply enough within one text with a full-text search engine. However, to answer these questions across the Arabic textual tradition requires not only a massive corpus (currently over 4200 items), but also incredible computing power.

The latest KITAB visualization of text reuse across two works attributed to Ibn Qutayba (d. 889 CE).
The latest KITAB visualization of text reuse across two works attributed to Ibn Qutayba (d. 889 CE).

I encourage readers to take a look at the latest text reuse visualization from the corpus, which is based on two works by Ibn Qutayba (d. 889 CE). I also suggest reading Dr. Savant’s critically reflective post on running the passim software across the entirety of the corpus, and the questions raised by the results about intertextuality and what text reuse means in the Arabic context. Lastly, I recommend that those interested and/or involved in the field review information on the KITAB Project’s corpus, including the FAQ links to the Open Islamicate Text Initiative for suggesting new digital titles and new titles requiring OCR. UT Libraries’ collection of historic Arabic texts is one of the largest in the United States and ripe with suggestions for the KITAB corpus (check out this Islamic Empire — History subject heading search to see a sample of UT’s rich Arabic collections).

 

Harold W. Billings

The Tomorrow Librarian: Harold Billings’s Legacy, 1978-2003

The cover of Billings' book Magic & Hypersystems: Constructing the Information Sharing Library.
The cover of Billings’ book Magic & Hypersystems: Constructing the Information Sharing Library.

Few can claim a career as long or legacy as lasting as Harold Billings. He began working for the University of Texas Libraries as a cataloger in 1954 while still pursuing his Master’s in Library Science and by 1978 was the director of the general libraries. He remained in that position until his retirement in 2003. Throughout his career Billings was able to navigate the immense changes in technology and constant challenge of keeping faith in value of libraries. Billings achieved this by inviting innovations that others of his time resisted. As a result of his leadership, UT Libraries thrived, growing its collections, introducing new digital services, and building its reputation as one if the highest ranking research libraries in the nation.

Today, technology and UT Libraries seem inextricably intertwined as students conduct research using their access to hundreds of online databases, use software in the computer labs, and create 3-D printed projects in the Foundry makerspace. When Billings first entered the field, libraries looked and functioned very differently. Throughout his career, Billings pushed UT libraries toward incorporating innovative technology from early searchable databases and the online card catalog to resource sharing and partnership with other libraries through TexShare.

Library staff member gestures to a poster titled "Searching the Database" that lists database queries.
Library staff member gestures to a poster titled “Searching the Database” that lists database queries.

While leading the general libraries forward in incorporating new technologies, Billings simultaneously continued to build the print and research collections at UT Libraries. A literary scholar himself, Billings’ love of research and books carried over into his many roles over his career at UTL. He maintained a close relationship with Harry Ransom, acquiring collections for the Center, and corresponded with several authors both regarding his own scholarship and to help bring literary collections to UT. The general libraries also saw tremendous growth of their collections over his career, from acquiring their 1 millionth volume while Billings was still a cataloger to holding over 7 million volumes by the end of his tenure as director.

A hand-colored drawing of an owl by Barbara Holman on the linen cover of Billing's book Texas Beast Fables.
A hand-colored drawing of an owl by Barbara Holman on the linen cover of Billing’s book Texas Beast Fables.

Billings’ love of books, research, and collecting extended beyond his role at UT. Inspired by his admiration for and friendships with writers and artists, Billings published literary works and criticism throughout his career and well after. Some of these publications include a biography of one of his favorite poets, Edward Dalhberg, and Texas Beast Fables, a bestiary of Texas folklore. Billings also built a personal collection of art favoring local artists as well as Newcomb pottery and Elvis memorabilia. From his early education through his retirement, two facts are undeniable: Harold Billings loved libraries and he loved Texas.

Harold Billings looking over a large manuscript of sheet music.
Harold Billings looking over a large manuscript of sheet music.

An exhibit highlighting these aspects of Billings’ career and life will be on display in the Scholars Commons beginning November 1st, and an online component can be viewed on Scalar. Borrowing the title of his 1995 essay on the future of libraries, we’ve given the exhibit a name that we think embodies Billings’ role as an innovative leader in the field: The Tomorrow Librarian.

Virginia Barnes and Rachael Zipperer are graduate research assistants from the university’s School of Information.

In Memoriam: Harold W. Billings

Lorraine Harcombe visits with a student in the media lab.

Musings from LJH…

Vice Provost and Director Lorraine J Haricombe.An exciting aspect of my role as VP and Director of UT Libraries is the opportunity to meet and discuss academic libraries’ roles in an age of networked information. The rapid rate of change in technology is a key driver but not the only one. The first generation of the twenty-first century has arrived on our campuses with very different expectations of discovering and accessing information and learning styles.

In higher education the internet has enabled new modes of research and communication, new knowledge products. And libraries are stepping up to embed librarians in that life-cycle. Simply put, libraries are at the heart of today’s digital transformation in research and scholarly communication, and  UT Libraries is no exception.

Our commitment is to embrace the core values of our profession to select and acquire, describe, make accessible and preserve valuable resources to support UT’s mission.  Our goal is to remain both relevant and strategic as we continue to assess our services, programs and expertise to leverage very limited resources efficiently.  We do so by engaging our users to understand their needs to position UT Libraries as a significant node in a rapidly changing higher education ecosystem.

The Provost’s new Task Force on “The Future of the UT Libraries is well-timed to have that conversation with our primary stakeholders.  I look forward to an opportunity to listen, understand and share the amazing stories of faculty and students who are impacted by work that happens at UT Libraries every day.

Record player and vintage typewriter on a desk.

Whit’s Picks: Take 2 – Gems from the HMRC

Resident poet and rock and roll star Harold Whit Williams has recently taken on a project to catalog the KUT Collection, obtained a few years ago and inhabiting a sizable portion of the Historical Music Recordings Collection (HMRC).

Being that he has a refined sense of both words and music, Whit seems like a good candidate for exploring and discovering some overlooked gems in the trove, and so in this occasional series, he’ll be presenting some of his noteworthy finds.

Earlier installments: Take 1


 

Black Tambourine / Black Tambourine

This short-lived yet highly influential late 80’s D.C. area band strummed and shoegazed ahead of its time, foreshadowing the twee-pop genre. Fuzz, feedback, and post-punk drumming backfill the sugary-sweet AM radio vocals. Their complete recordings here, with six previously unreleased songs.

 

Nancy Elizabeth / Wrought Iron

Mancunian folk singer-songwriter Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe haunts in a most wonderful way on this spare, moody, and ethereal album, released on UK’s The Leaf Label.  Ballasted by minor-key piano and acoustic guitar, her voice drifts out to sea, lilting with love and loss.

 

Avery Sharpe Trio / Live: Fraser Performance Studio at WGBH

Long-time bassist for legendary McCoy Tyner (as well as giants Art Blakey and Archie Shepp), Sharpe stretches the trad jazz piano/bass/drums setting here into something completely unique, showcasing his virtuosic chops on sweet old standards and bold originals alike.

 

Dave McCann and the Firehearts / Dixiebluebird

Wind-driven ballads from Ontario’s Dave McCann, backed by his roots-rocking band the Firehearts and produced by Nashville’s Americana icon Will Kimbrough. This collection sets out upon that long stretch of heartworn highway, but brings the listener closer to home with each bittersweet song.

 

William Hooker ; Christian Marclay ; Lee Ranaldo / Bouquet.

Avant-garde jazz drummer Hooker, artist/composer/turntablist Marclay, and Sonic Youth guitarist Ranaldo anesthetize, improvise, and terrorize the more than willing crowd in this live recording from NYC’s Knitting Factory. Ambient musique concrète + furious drum flurries + dissonant guitar squawk = Exquisite Chaos.

album cover
William Hooker, Christian Marclay, Lee Ranaldo. Bouquet.

Sample audio from Bouquet at Allmusic

 

[Harold Whit Williams is a Library Specialist in Music & Multimedia Resources Cataloging for Content Management. He also writes poetry, is guitarist for Cotton Mather, and records ambient electronic music under the solo name The French Riot.]