ACOR Photo Archive, Amman, Jordan

The American Center of Oriental Research (ACOR) Photo Archive has recently digitized and made available six collections of photographs spanning diverse subjects in archaeology, social history, anthropology, art and architectural history from 1944 to 2008 from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The ACOR Photo Archive is open-access and all of the 15,000 photos online are available to download for free.  The vast majority of these photos were not previously catalogued, known about, or accessible to the public. Two years in to the four-year digitization project, the ACOR Photo Archive is now accessed from countries all around the world, with most of its users split between Jordan and the U.S. The ACOR Photo Archive Project is funded by a Title VI (2016) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The ACOR Photo Archive Project was initiated to digitize images mostly from Jordan, including donated collections and those of former research center directors. Inspiration for this project came from a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of cultural heritage in the region in the context of the wars in Syria and Yemen, amongst the loss of human life. The Photo Archive Project sought to resist this destruction by turning attention to the resources in ACOR’s basement – the photographic record of now-infamous places such as Palmyra/Tadmur in Syria, as well as less well-known feats of ancient engineering like Marib Dam, Yemen, pictured before they were damaged in the conflict.

The Triumphal Arch of the Great Colonnade, with the Arab castle visible in the background. Palmyra/Tadmur, Syria, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

South sluice, Marib Dam, Yemen, 1995. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

From the outset, as ACOR is based in Jordan, quieter forms of destruction – through development pursued without care for the urban environment in its entirety or through the prioritization of some histories over others – were also a factor in the desire to digitize the archives. Comparing the two images below of the Oval Piazza at the Roman and Islamic archaeological site in Jerash, Jordan gives an insight into both the rate of development, and the prioritization of certain historical remains over others.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1955. George Bass collection at ACOR.

Oval Piazza, Jerash, 1998. Jane Taylor collection at ACOR.

An unexpected highlight of embarking on the ACOR Photo Archive Project was the enthusiasm with which other institutions in Jordan received ACOR’s heritage digitization efforts. In 2017, ACOR hosted a workshop for fellow heritage and library professionals creating a forum to share and address specific challenges relating to digitizing heritage of Jordan and the wider region. Challenges included how best to describe archival material so that researchers, students and the general public would be able to find it easily, no matter their educational background. When you are handling representations of sites typically inhabited by at least two civilizations with vastly different names for their settlements as well as the variations found when one script is transliterated into another – Arabic to Latin in this case – things quickly become complicated. Some places, such as the Islamic Umayyad (7th-8th century) lodge and bathhouse, Qasr ‘Amrah, in Jordan’s Eastern Desert are also known by a second name in Arabic, Qusayr Amra. This complexity makes it essential to collate extensive metadata (information about data, such as photos) covering all scholarly traditions that discuss the subject matter of the photo, in order to render images findable through simple keyword search. This process transforms individual image collections into a visual bibliography of the region.

Technical training in digitization, particularly slide, print and negative photo scanning, is in demand in Jordan, where archival sciences programs equivalent to those elsewhere are not yet available in the otherwise sophisticated cultural heritage management sector. As a result, in 2018, the ACOR Photo Archive team led in-depth training designed to turn scanning novices into digitization professionals working according to the best-practice recommendations of the U.S. Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines (2016).

As the Photo Archive team began adding layers of descriptive metadata to each image, they realized that they wielded control over how the images would be received and interpreted by archive users. The information presented alongside the images would frame how these were to be interpreted by researchers, school students, and even perhaps future generations. In the postcolonial context of overseas research centers in Jordan, this is a significant responsibility. The initial plan for the ACOR Photo Archive did not include metadata in Arabic. However, the Photo Archive team quickly realized that this had the potential to prevent Arabic-speaking researchers and students from benefitting from the newly available material. Instead, the team insisted upon Arabic-script functionality when commissioning a Content Management Platform – ‘Starchive’ by Digital ReLab – to host the ACOR Photo Archive online.

As the Photo Archive developed into tens of thousands of images presented online, Samya Kafafi, Project Coordinator for Metadata, added descriptions and references for further reading from publications in Arabic – serving as a platform in which the work of Jordanian and international scholars are presented with equal weight. Presenting images of cultural heritage from across the region alongside the premier academic scholarship on its topic became a priority for the team, and is something we are continuing to develop today, as the ACOR Photo Archive grows. Although the archive is run by one of the premier research libraries in Jordan, its potential to serve younger learners was highlighted at the Jordan School Librarians’ Conference (November 2018), which inspired teachers to incorporate the ACOR Photo Archive as a key resource for school projects.

Looking ahead to the next two years of the project, ACOR’s goals are to continue to make more images accessible – a target of 30,000 by late 2020 – as well as to hold photo exhibitions both online and in Amman, to foster further exchanges with experts on subjects included in the archive, and to continue to train young Jordanians in the practices of archiving and digitization.

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