Recapturing the spirit of the ancient library of Alexandria in the 21st Century





The destruction of the ancient library of Alexandria has become a byword for cultural loss, and its memory as the greatest library of its age continues to haunt the modern world. Later this month the founding director of the new Library of Alexandria will share how he set about recapturing the spirit of the ancient Library of Alexandria 1600 years after its destruction at a free public lecture in Trinity College Dublin on Monday, 26th November, 2018.

Dr Ismail Serageldin, Founding Director Emeritus, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, will discuss the challenges of reimaging the ancient library in the context of the 21st century. He will also share his thoughts on threats to the library’s survival in the face of ongoing turmoil in the region.

Dr Serageldin holds a PhD from Harvard University and 38 honorary doctorates. He is the recipient of 18 prestigious international awards and has published over 100 books and over 500 papers on topics including biotechnology, rural development, sustainability and the value of science. In addition, Serageldin has hosted over 130 episodes of a cultural television series in Egypt and developed an Arabic and English language science television series.

The lecture is the first instalment of the Trinity Long Room Hub Multiannual Lecture Series, which runs for three years until 2021. The series, which is entitled ‘Out of the Ashes — Collective Memory, Cultural Loss and Recovery’ will see world-leading experts on cultural loss and recovery share their knowledge of how societies have dealt with cultural trauma through reconstruction and commemoration. The series will also explore how the international community should respond to the destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa.

Other speakers who will participate in the three-year lecture series will include Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google; Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, The British Library; and Shamil Jeppie, Director of the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project.

Out of the Ashes takes its immediate impetus from Ireland’s national archival tragedy—the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the Four Courts, Dublin, in 1922 at the opening of the Irish Civil War. In one afternoon seven centuries of Ireland’s historical and genealogical records, amounting to hundreds of thousands of documents, were destroyed. Earlier this year, Trinity launched the ground-breaking Beyond 2022 Project—an international archival partnership which is working to reconstruct virtually the Public Record Office of Ireland and its collections in time for the centenary of their destruction.

Coordinator of the lecture series, Dr Peter Crooks, Department of History, Trinity and Principal Investigator of ‘Beyond 2022’ project commented: “Cultural atrocity is a subject with a deep history and enormous contemporary resonance. Think of Sarajevo in 1992, Baghdad in 2003, Palmyra in 2015. This multiannual series sets the Irish experience of cultural loss over the centuries in its broadest possible context. But just as important is the story of recovery, of how societies deal with cultural trauma. This series brings to international attention our current effort to create an inspiring national legacy to mark the centenary of 1922 by reconstructing digitally the collective memories of all traditions in these islands and of the Irish abroad.”

Across its three years, Out of the Ashes traces the story of collecting, destroying and reconstructing cultural heritage. The first year of the lecture series will explore the human urge to collect and the social meaning of the world’s great collections, including the manuscripts of the world heritage site of Timbuktu which were saved from oblivion in 2013. Year 2 examines intentional destruction of cultural heritage in armed conflicts. Finally, Year 3 showcases how societies have recovered from cultural trauma, both literally through the reconstruction of lost knowledge and also socially through the creation of sites of cultural memory.

This multi-annual series is organised in association with the Trinity College Research Themes, Digital Humanities, Identities in Transformation, Making Ireland, and Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures, and the Trinity Library.

Beyond 2022 presents at Transkribus/READ Consortium conference in Vienna

Dr. Dave Brown of the Beyond 2022 project presented at the READ Consortium conference in Vienna on 9 November 2018 on how the exceptionally rich replacement materials identified by Beyond 2022 are suitable for HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) processing, potentially rendering them fully-searchable. To date, Beyond 2022 has identified over 300 volumes from the Record Commission of Ireland (1810-30) suitable for such HTR treatment, collectively representing as much as 20 million words of text recoverable from the losses of the 1922 fire.

Some individuals transcribed up to 25,000 pages over a period of many years. With so many examples of very large quantities of text produced by a single hand, the Irish Record Office transcriptions might as well have been prepared with Transkribus in mind.

The collections reflect the cataloguing arrangements in the original record office and the largest sets of copies deal with topics central to the study of Irish history: the establishment of English governing structures in the Middle Ages, the Elizabethan conquest, the Plantation of Ulster, the Cromwellian occupation of Ireland, the Williamite wars and the breaking up of the great landed estates in the nineteenth century. All areas of history are covered in these transcripts, however, and the material includes early census-type records, trade, legal judgements and a wide range of smaller thematic collections related to specific towns and cities. The digitisation is most advanced for the Cromwellian period, 1650-1659, and the scale of documents recovered surpasses that which has survived for most parts of England.

Transkribus works very well on large, relatively uniform collections such as these. Several HTR models have been prepared for 15,000 words each. As the number of trained models increased, a separate project emerged to investigate if the existing models could be used to partially HTR a sample from the next set of documents, and speed up the process of creating each subsequent ground truth. It was decided to create a single page ground truth for each new example, and compare this with text automatically generated with each model in the project to find the best one to work with.