The online digital library project, "WikiLala,'" which aims to gather and digitize all the printed texts from the Ottoman Empire since the introduction of the printing press, has been shedding new light on the empire's history and culture. Thousands of books, magazines, journals, newspapers and various other manuscripts and documents have been digitized from Ottoman Turkish works.
The project has been in the works since 2019 with the initiative of Hiperlink, the founder of Turkey's first digital library, project manager Sadi Özgür and Harun Tuncer, project consultant and academic member at the History Department of Istanbul Aydın University.
Tuncer stated that after the reformation of the alphabet in 1928, which converted the official alphabet of Turkey into Latin letters, there was a serious and significant separation and disengagement from the Ottoman era. Society and the academy became oblivious to the Ottoman culture, social structure and political knowledge, he said.
Tuncer said there was a significant treasure trove of knowledge waiting to be discovered in Ottoman documents since the time of Ibrahim Müteferrika, who introduced the printing press to the empire and was the first Muslim to run a printing press with movable Arabic type.
“We are oblivious to this wealth of knowledge, we don't know how to access it, how to evaluate it. Once we do access it, we don't have many means to search through all those texts,” Tuncer told Anadolu Agency (AA). “This has been the thing that stimulated us in this project. This is a rejuvenation movement, like the Renaissance. We want to rejuvenate that era, that is our aim.”
As part of the project, the documents are transferred into the digital library in a three-part process. In the first stage, the documents are scanned in high-resolution if they are obtained via a physical copy, and then they are digitized. Lastly, the digitized documents are cataloged and uploaded to the system, where they are available to be analyzed.
Researchers can access the documents online without having to obtain physical copies from libraries. They can also search through the documents easily and quickly using the system's search engine, which can be used with Arabic and Latin letters thanks to the optical character recognition (OCR) technique used in the scans.
The project's website, which is currently in its Beta version, houses over 109,000 Ottoman documents, including over 45,000 newspapers, 32,000 journals, 4,000 books and 26,000 articles.
Tuncer said that they have been working on the project for two years and recently launched the Beta version of the website. He believes the website will be out of Beta in a couple of month's time and will welcome visitors with its full version.
Tuncer also explained the name of the project. “WikiLala” was derived from the title “Lala” which was given to the tutors of Ottoman princes. He said that they wanted to tutor and guide the people trying to access this wealth of knowledge, stating that they were “trying to build the 'Google' of Ottoman Turkish.”
Tuncer also explained their goals for the website. “We will have uploaded half of the number of documents that we want to reach within a year. Researchers, with the contributions of our users, will have access to a body of works amounting to 2 million pages of the 3 (million) to 5 million pages that we believe exist,” he said.
Tuncer said that they used several sources to supply the catalog of the library including foreign open source libraries and public and private Ottoman collections. He also noted that Latinizing and simplifying the documents they uploaded was also part of their plans, which they aim to be able to do by 2022.