All posts by Middle Eastern Studies at UTL

Dale J. Correa is the Middle Eastern Studies Librarian for the University of Texas Libraries.
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).

 

A New Frontier for Middle Eastern Studies in Qatar

Doha skyline.In early January of this year, Libraries’ collections development staff traveled to Doha, the only major city and capital of the small Persian Gulf country Qatar. Although in English our convention is to say the Persian Gulf, Qataris in fact speak a dialect of Arabic. This was a particularly exciting opportunity because Qatar was new territory for Middle Eastern Studies at the Libraries. Although the Middle Eastern Studies staff have traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, Qatar just had not made the list until this year. This fact presented challenges that have proven useful to our professional development, most notably in gaining experience with utilizing professional relationships that lead to local, on-the-ground contacts in unfamiliar locales.

This trip was instrumental in three principal ways: first, for enhancing the Libraries’ distinctive collection in Middle Eastern Studies, especially in the areas of Islamic law and Persian Gulf Studies; second, for getting a sense of the research environment in Qatar; and third, for our professional development.

View of book fair from aboveOne of the reasons that January was chosen as the ideal time for this trip (besides the weather being much more pleasant than the Persian Gulf in summer) was to attend the Doha International Book Fair.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of the book fair.We could say that book fairs in Arabic-speaking countries are a big deal, but that would be an understatement. The Cairo International Book Fair, which we have attended in the past, is the largest of the book fairs in the Middle East. It is part scholarly paradise and part carnival. Whole families come out to look at books, make purchases, and find unique materials for their children. The Doha Book Fair was similar, especially as the fair itself put an emphasis on children’s literature.

Book fair booth map and publisher list, including children’s materials.

Armed with a booth map and publisher lists, we started working the book fair on the night of its opening. One of our new colleagues – so new that we met for the first time in Doha through our professional contacts – was in charge of a booth for an interfaith center, and another was a professor at the Georgetown Qatar School of Foreign Service. Yet another was a graduate student in the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies and a Doha local. Their insights and recommendations for local presses and the best ways to get around town and the book fair were indispensable. Continue reading