The Digitization of Armenian Cultural Heritage

Yerevan, Armenia – In its tradition of disseminating Armenian cultural heritage, AUA has digitized and made freely accessible over 60 volumes of Western Armenian literature penned by authors who perished in the Armenian Genocide. Project Director, Mr. Meruzhan Karapetyan, told an audience last week that this is the latest stage in the digitization of Armenian literary treasures, launched by AUA in the 1990s as “part of the longstanding Armenian tradition of safeguarding Armenian cultural wealth.” Now, with the digitization of over 60 volumes of Western Armenian literature, it can confidently be said that Armenian literature is not only preserved but more widely available than ever. 

As noted by President Der Kiureghian at the opening, “Digilib aims to promote new insight and understanding of Armenian culture, history, and language. The new media on Digilib’s website are more than a copy of the printed books in digital form. This medium makes them dynamic texts that can be searched, studied, compared, and analyzed to discover new insights into their meaning and relevance for today.”

This initiative is part of AUA’s Digital Library of Armenian Literature (Digilib) project, the largest and most comprehensive repository of Armenian digital texts, established to preserve Armenia’s enormous cultural legacy. In the early 1990s, as mass digitization projects began across the world, the urgent need for the digitization of Armenian texts became apparent. Digilib soon began its own digitization projects, through a partnership between AUA and Armenian academics, with the support of then AUA President Haroutune K. Armenian. The website was finally established in 1999 and made available worldwide. The project was made possible by the hard work of academics from Armenia and a generous donation by Alice Ohanessian.

Digilib now houses over 3,000 digitized texts by 700 authors, with a vast selection of literature from a variety of disciplines including law, history, poetry, philosophy, health, theology, and the sciences. The catalogue comprises of 4 main sections: 5th-18th C. Classical Armenian Literature; 1850-2000 Western and Diaspora Literature; Armenian Studies; and most recently Armenian Authors from the Genocide period. The digitization of writers who perished in the genocide is part of AUAs proud tradition of valuing history, made possible by a number of generous donations, including from the from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the San Francisco-Bay Area Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee. “Armenian culture is no longer locked away in rare book libraries or endangered on disintegrating print,” explained AUA President Dr. Armen Der Kiureghian. Yet the work is ongoing and there is a vast amount of literature yet to be digitalized: “We can’t keep up with cataloguing the vast amount of Armenian literature available to us,” noted Karapetyan.

Karapetyan spoke passionately about the wealth of literature created by Armenian authors who perished in the Genocide, and the difficulty they faced in publishing on Armenian issues: “We have to understand the richness of Armenian literature during the Ottoman Empire,” he explained, “literature that was based on sentiment of national liberation and reform which was banned from all media in the empire.”

In a later interview, Karapetyan added that special attention had been paid to digitizing and cataloguing the works of less-known authors from the period, including women. These works add to our understanding of the Armenian Genocide and allow for more in-depth study of the period.

One such writer, Gegham Barseghyan, spent day and night in his printing house where Azatamart Weekly was produced. Azatamart published stories about revolutionary activities, in particular about Armenians travelling from Eastern Armenia to the Ottoman Empire in an effort to support Armenian aspirations. Barseghyan wrote poeticized “And they shall walk, they were seven friends and they are called, understanding, love, faith, will, struggle, life and death, and an eighth person leads them, whose name is called ideology.” AUA believes that the digitization project will ensure that future generations, and indeed its own students, can continue to study and analyze Armenian literature.

Karapetyan expressed concern that future generations might not be aware of the quantity of Armenian literature or appreciate the richness it offers. His message to them is clear: Armenian literature falls within the top ten literary cultures of the world, and this treasure of literature from the period of the Armenian Genocide is now digitized and readily available.

Karapetyan also announced the launch of the Android and iTunes apps, providing free access to Armenian literary texts on hand-held devices. Together with the website’s new, sophisticated database and search engine, the apps ensure access to digitized Armenian literature in a single repository and across a range of platforms, providing a convenient tool for comparative analysis. The project attests to the importance of 21st-century digital tools in preserving and presenting Armenia’s heritage to a global audience. Equally, Karapetyan was confident that Digilib would soon be taken up by Armenian diasporan communities, and hoped it would be included in their school curricula, creating a virtual cultural space for the globalized Armenian nation.

A number of prominent guests expressed their appreciation for the project and, in particular, their gratitude to Mr. Karapetyan. Dr Razmik Panossian, Director of the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, commented on the significance of the project and how Armenians can present this now digitalized treasure to the world. Associate Professor Sebouh Aslanian, who is the Richard Hovannisian Endowed Chair in Modern Armenian History at UCLA, also thanked Karapetyan for his contribution to preserving and disseminating Armenian culture.

Digilib is a fulfilment of AUA’s commitment to preserving Armenian cultural heritage. But Digilib is about more than preservation – it is about making our heritage accessible to both present and future scholars in Armenia and around the world. In the words of Karapetyan: “This latest project honors intellectuals who were victims of the genocide. The next step is for the next generation of Armenians to understand and share the wealth of our history and literary heritage with the world.”

You can visit the digitalized repository at digilib.am

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