The project aims to lay the groundwork for a large-scale survey and digitisation of endangered private manuscript libraries on the Tunisian island of Jerba. It seeks to accomplish this goal by creating a complete inventory and digital photo repository of a single manuscript collection, that of the El Basi family, to serve as a pilot project and model. The inventory, digitisation, and conservation of these materials will have the secondary goal of encouraging families on the island to participate in a larger survey of other endangered collections in Jerba in the future.
While it hopes to lay the groundwork for a much larger project that will include many other libraries on the island, the pilot project will concentrate on a specific collection belonging to the El Basi (al-Bāsī) family. According to a hand-list from the 20th century, the collection numbers around 200 bound volumes with between 200-300 titles. The collection was founded in the 18th century by two Jerbian brothers who were traders based in the city of Istanbul. Most manuscripts likely date to the 18th and 19th centuries, although some could date to much earlier periods. According to an inscription on the face of the mosque annex that originally housed the collection, the manuscripts in the library were endowed for the use of students and scholars on the island in 1784.
The mosque remained in use throughout the 19th century until reforms to the Tunisian educational system under the French Protectorate (1881-1956). From the recent preliminary survey in January 2017 of documents in the Tunisian National Archives, the project team learned that already by the 1920s there were concerns that books from the library had been lost and were in need of repair. Following the closure of the El Basi Mosque in the early 20th century, the manuscripts were relocated to the El Basi family residence in the town of Houmt Souk, where they have remained up to the present. The choice of the El Basi manuscript collection stemmed from the willingness of its current curator, Mr. Mongi El Basi, to participate in the program and his enthusiasm at the idea of being able at once to conserve the collection and to make it available to researchers worldwide.
In terms of content, the texts in the El Basi library deal with a variety of religious topics including law and theology, as well as biography and poetry. Alongside religious texts, however, the collection holds several works on rhetoric and language as well as the sciences. While many of the manuscripts were written by Sunni-Muslim authors from the Hanafi and Maliki schools of Islam, others were authored by the minority Ibadi-Muslim community on the island. Ibadis are neither Sunni nor Shi’i Muslims and most their texts today remain in private collections like this one. Having been protected for centuries by Ibadis, collections like this one and many others on the island of Jerba are in danger of being lost forever.
Housed in a building lacking insulation and exposed to the elements of a Mediterranean island such as humidity, pests, and dust, the manuscripts of Jerbian libraries like the El Basi collection are in danger of disintegrating or being devoured by insects. Having worked with other collections on the island, including the Barouni (al-Bārūnī) family library and the Ben Yaqoub (Bin Yaʿqūb) family library, the principal investigator has witnessed first-hand the results of poor storage conditions: pages covered in mould and eaten away by insects and humidity damaged folios that have left texts illegible. Without digitisation and other conservation measures, the El Basi manuscript collection will soon succumb to these elements and be lost. In addition to natural elements, the story of another manuscript library on Jerba demonstrates a more extreme risk to small private collections like this one. The El Baatour (al-Ba’tur) family library, a private manuscript collection that housed some of the oldest copies of Ibadi Muslim texts in northern Africa, was lost to a fire in the 1990s. Ultimately, no conservation project can protect a manuscript collection from all possible threats. But this project will aim to prolong considerably the life of this collection by creating digital facsimiles that can help preserve its contents for posterity.
The El Basi family manuscript collection carries importance for scholarship of two types. Firstly, the collection holds tremendous value for scholars interested in the Arabic manuscript tradition in northern Africa. Many pre-modern Islamic manuscripts in the region remain in private hands and scholars interested in local histories, regional histories, manuscript collecting practices, or the Islamic manuscript tradition in the Maghrib do not have access to them. Those manuscripts from the Maghrib which are available are from collections that have been dispersed and relocated to national libraries. An in situ pre-modern collection like the El Basi manuscript library provides scholars not only with valuable manuscript exemplars from a variety of different periods but also allows them to study features of the collection itself such as ownership practices and preferences, library organisation, and endowments. The second type of importance relates to the content of the manuscripts themselves. Like many of the libraries on the island of Jerba, the El Basi collection historically belonged to the mosque (and later a family) associated with the Ibadi Muslims. The texts of this religious minority, scattered today throughout much of northern Africa, make up a corpus of religious, historical, and political works that provide an alternative to their better-known Sunnite and Shi’ite contemporaries. While modern Ibadi and other Muslim communities of Jerba have expressed much interest in the long-term preservation of these types of collections through digitisation, they have until now largely lacked the funds to do so for anything other than the largest collections in the region. The El Basi collection will be the first of many such preservation projects that will make widely available manuscript copies of not only Sunni but also some Ibadi Muslim texts from small private libraries throughout the island of Jerba.