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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Digital Archive Collects Arabic Book Covers of the 20th Century

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These independent projects raise new questions about what it means to archive the past. In “52 Questions About the Archive,” an essay for the online newspaper Mada Masr, six artists and archivists reflect on discussions that came out of a Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences course titled Archive Fever: Appropriation in Contemporary Art. Recent interest in independent archives has been fueled, the authors write, by the “despair at the lack of access to official archives, where information is locked in the cracks of ministry buildings or decaying government databases.”

Yet these new, decentralized archives face their own sorts of problems.

Researcher Kristine Khouri, one of the “Digital Forays” panelists, noted that projects like the Arabic Book Cover Archive will benefit from standardizing practices, saying it would be helpful for them to have “context and information about the covers (designer, author, illustrator, publisher, etc.) more consistently throughout.”

And indeed, Elhossieny said that the ABCA group is working now to gather all this information and more, adding, “We are intending to add nuance in the way we organize our content, so people would be able to get some advanced search options that can help them filter their search.”

“Since this is a visual research, the filter options will include visual options like shapes, symbols, colors,” Elhossieny said. “So, let’s say I will be able to search for books in the ‘60s that had a green color, illustration, with an icon of a globe in it.”

‘What Makes an Event Worthy of Archiving?’

Among the 52 questions the Mada Masr co-authors asked about archives is what makes something worthy of being saved. Elhossieny said that, at the moment, ABCA doesn’t have any guidelines for choosing worthy book covers. Instead, the team is interested in “all books” from roughly the 1940s through the 1990s.

Currently, in the project’s first phase, they are focused on collection and data. At this point, “We are not gathering beautiful or good-looking book covers; we are collecting all book covers.”

“The number one criterion for us is the quality of the scans,” Elhossieny said. “And the second is being rigorous in collecting the information. We are ultimately an archive providing the raw material for research, and that [research] could have such conclusions as to what defines good or bad designs.”

While it’s true that, on Instagram, the ABCA group has shared only the 450-some covers that have most stood out, Elhossieny said there are a lot more to come, as he emphasized, “We collect absolutely everything.”

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