Guerrilla Vernacular Presses in Afghanistan

This was a long and complex project in Afghanistan focused on making available to western researchers previously inaccessible Taliban documents and other source materials.

Several colleagues had acquired the materials – Pashto, Dari and Arabic language magazines, newspapers, government records, and unpublished manuscripts – while they were living in Kandahar between 2006 and 2011. They’d been collecting the materials to support their research and writing,  but they hadn’t done so with the intention of making the collection into a publicly accessible and usable archive. The volume of materials eventually exceeded their ability to manage it. The collection was also physically perishable: the materials were printed documents and manuscripts, which are always vulnerable to damage from fire, water and infestation; they were also, as the intellectual output of an armed and violent opposition movement, at risk of confiscation and destruction by the authorities.

My colleagues called it “The Taliban Sources Project”, or just “TSP”. In 2012 I developed the plan to preserve, digitize and translate the collection, and secured funding for the TSP later that year. Between 2013 and 2015, I managed the TSP, working with staff at our project office in Kabul, translators located in Germany, Lebanon, the United Kingdom, the United States and Pakistan, and in its final phase, database specialists in Canada and Norway. The result is a searchable electronic archive containing just over 51 000 pages of scanned documents and just under 2 million words of translated text. Along the way, we’ve had the support of numerous individuals and a handful of institutions, including St. Antony’s College at Oxford University and the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University.

But the TSP has also been controversial: in 2015, two offices within the British Library declined to accept the collection when we offered to donate it, which precipated a flurry of media coverage and debate that generally condemned the BL’s position. Our intent had always been that once we completed the project, the results – the digital files and database – would be donated to libraries capable of responsibly hosting them and encouraging scholarly engagement. With media coverage came offers to host the collection,  from Stanford and Yale Universities in the United States, the Swiss National Library, and others. I’m happy to report that it will be residing on servers at the University of Oslo, as part of a larger project co-hosted by  the university’s Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages and the oustanding Norwegian Defence Ressearch Establishment (FFI).

I’ll be writing more about the TSP in future. For now, you can read some of the background on the project here:

Press release (24 Feb 2012): Thesigers Launches Taliban Sources Project

Press release (21 Mar 2012): Thesigers Appoints Advisory Board for TSP

Press release (05 Jan 2016): Media Coverage of Afghan Historical Documents Project