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Thai local knowledge: The long hidden wisdom of manuscripts

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Local knowledge plays an important role in people’s everyday lives and helps to maintain health, wealth and stable communities. Although in the past decades, a preference for transmitting local knowledge orally or through electronic and virtual media has evolved in Thailand – as everywhere else – the preservation of local knowledge in written form is essential in order to transmit it to future generations. Presently, the contents of mostly unique manuscripts are being explored and investigated to preserve and to reconstruct partially forgotten traditional local knowledge, and numerous initiatives aim at making this knowledge available electronically and via the internet by way of digitisation.

The diverse and flexible traditional formats for storing and transmitting local knowledge are generally known as “manual” (tamrā), “treatise” (khamphi), or “handbook” (khu mü). All kinds of information, accounts, procedures, methods and rules may be encoded in these three formats, and be stored in the form of palmleaf manuscripts or paper folding books. The three terms were sometimes used interchangeably. Although some scholars would insist on distinguishing between the three formats, in practical usage their semantic ranges overlap.

Generally, knowledge encoded in the manuscript format was dignified by the Sanskrit term for science, sastra (sāt in Thai), to the extent that tamrā and sāstra in many instances are used synonymously. In its original meaning, the term sāstra was used for a written codification of rules in order to regulate certain human practices and activities.

At the courts of Thai kings, as well as at the courts of regional tributary rulers and allies, great value was placed on the possession of knowledge in the form of sāstra. This knowledge often was related with acquiring and exercising power, with waging war, with managing the ever shifting balances of allies and enemies, and with the art of governing. Brahmans (in Thai phrām) knowledgeable in the sāstra and adept at providing these aids had been retained in the Thai courts at least since the beginning of the Ayutthaya period. Knowledge of magic spells, incantations, and the creation and manipulation of magic diagrams was regarded as secret knowledge and carefully guarded from falling into the hands of enemies. Practitioners – ritual specialists, astrologers, healers, fortune tellers – claimed to know certain methods to make their spells, incantations, forecasts, or prescriptions more effective than those of their rivals. Theravada Buddhist monks sometimes also acquired sāstra, although such knowledge nowadays may be regarded by devout Buddhists as sheer superstition.

The possession of sāstra was not the preserve of the elite alone. There was, and is, a popular dimension to this knowledge. Some medical therapies, fortune-telling, magic, ritual practices and even certain aspects of astrology cannot be traced to foreign influences. Manuscripts which encode local knowledge were regarded as sacred materials, and even the possession of a certain manuscript was sometimes thought to provide protection or special powers. For long periods of time they were hidden treasures in Buddhist monastery libraries or in private and family collections in order to protect their contents and secrets. However, more and more manuscripts are being made publicly accessible in libraries, museums or institutions of higher education, or via the internet in digital form. The examples below are the results of digitisation efforts at the Bavarian State Library (Germany), the State Museums of Berlin (Germany), the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Thailand) and the British Library (UK).

Buddhist cosmology (Traiphūmlōkwinitchai) from Central Thailand; folding book dated 1776 A.D. held at the Museum for Asian Art, Berlin (IC 27507)

Buddhist cosmology (Traiphūmlōkwinitchai) from Central Thailand; folding book dated 1776 A.D. held at the Museum for Asian Art, Berlin (IC 27507)

An outstanding example of Thai local knowledge is the Traiphum, a Buddhist cosmology. It is a treatise that describes the Buddhist universe in a Thai traditional understanding. Translated, it would mean “three worlds” (heaven, earth and hell), but in fact it describes many different states of existence, in which concepts of heaven and hell have various levels.

Illustrations of the Traiphum depict many facets of the visible and imagined worlds, including many subjects from Buddhist scriptures. Some Traiphum manuscripts also include fascinating early maps of Thailand and surrounding areas. The map shown above depicts the Indian subcontinent with Sri Lanka, with red lines giving the distances between certain places. The objective of those maps is not geographic accuracy, but rather to indicate important places and travel routes. Some Traiphum illustrations emphasize the real natural or imagined character of places. Therefore the seas are often filled with all types of creatures; and landscapes are sometimes attributed by mountains, rivers, trees, animals, Buddha footprints or important stupas, which are understood as marking points for geographic orientation. Places like countries, towns and islands are named in some cases. A digital version of parts of the manuscript can be viewed on the website of the State Museums of Berlin.

Astrology (hōrasāt) manuscript showing various appearances of the sun and related predictions; 19th-century folding book held at the British Library (Or 15760)

Astrology (hōrasāt) manuscript showing various appearances of the sun and related predictions; 19th-century folding book held at the British Library (Or 15760)

As servants of the king, Thai astrologers possessed knowledge vital to making decisions, for example about when to go to war, when to meet foreign envoys, or when to start the agrarian cycle to achieve the most favourable outcome. In the reign of the late sixteenth-century king, Naresuan, astrologers were asked on numerous occasions to decide most propitious moments to prepare the Siamese army for battle against the Mon ruler at Pegu. They also interpreted the king’s dreams. Astrologers were close to power and because of their expertise provided advice as valuable as that of a minister of state. Thai towns and cities had horoscopes, their respective futures readable in the conjunction of heavenly bodies. Astrology required accurate time-keeping and calendar systems, and for that reason was a science indispensable to maintaining historical records. Nowadays, such manuscripts can be very useful in the determination of approximate or correct dates of historical events. The fully digitised manuscript can be viewed online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page.

Protective magic (saiyasāt) is the subject of this manuscript containing yantra designs and formula for the creation of amulets (takrut); 19th century folding book held at the Wat Lam Phaya Folk Floating Market Museum, Nakhon Pathom (NPT-004-011). Photograph courtesy of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre Bangkok

Protective magic (saiyasāt) is the subject of this manuscript containing yantra designs and formula for the creation of amulets (takrut); 19th century folding book held at the Wat Lam Phaya Folk Floating Market Museum, Nakhon Pathom (NPT-004-011). Photograph courtesy of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre Bangkok

Many manuscripts are characterized by drawings of sacred or magic diagrams (yantra) and formulas, which usually could only be produced, read and interpreted by a ritual specialist or a monk who had been trained in this unique knowledge. The historical role of magic and protective diagrams and formula is described in the Thai epic narrative Khun Chang Khun Phaen, for example. It is assumed that magic was mostly used as a protective measure and as a means to improve individual or communal fortune and merit, but it could also serve the aim to disempower real or perceived enemies. The fully digitised manuscript is available online from the website of the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

Medicine (phaetsāt) manual from Central Thailand detailing tumours and their prospects for treatment; 19th century folding book held at the British Library (Or. 14114)

Medicine (phaetsāt) manual from Central Thailand detailing tumours and their prospects for treatment; 19th century folding book held at the British Library (Or. 14114)

In its most sophisticated written form Thai medical knowledge was preserved by court physicians who guarded it jealously to keep it from other practitioners. But medical knowledge preserved at the court paralleled and mutually informed a body of local medical knowledge transmitted in the countryside. This medical knowledge should not be regarded as a uniform system of medicine, although the cultural dominance of the court and the practice of writing it down and making it known to Western visitors might lead historians to think otherwise. Regional differences in language, tradition, environment, and differing concepts of well-being meant that there were marked variations in the way illnesses and their treatments were classified in different parts of Thailand. Medical manuscripts often contain illustrations representing the Thai understanding of human anatomy and a wide range of tumours and diseases like the example shown above; others explain methods for childbirth, treatment of different diseases or the use of herbal remedies; and some illustrate methods for massage and acupressure. The manuscript shown above is available online from the British Library.

Elephant treatise (tamrā chāng) dealing with aspects of sacred elephants as well as keeping real elephants; 19th century folding book from Central Thailand held at the British Library (Or 13652)

Elephant treatise (tamrā chāng) dealing with aspects of sacred elephants as well as keeping real elephants; 19th century folding book from Central Thailand held at the British Library (Or 13652)

Among Thai animal treatises, those on elephants are the most remarkable. According to traditional belief, elephants – most especially white elephants – symbolised merit, power and wisdom. White elephants had a semi-divine status and were revered as a powerful symbol of the king’s strength and the prosperity of the kingdom. In Thai mythology, certain elephants were thought to have magical powers, like the 33-headed Erawan elephant. A three-headed white elephant served as a royal symbol in several Thai and Lao kingdoms on flags and state emblems. Also, practically, elephants played an important role in warfare.

In Thai manuscripts, sacred elephants in the Buddhist context are preferably shown in bright colours (white, light-yellow, golden, light-grey or pink to red), but also real elephants are shown as they appear in nature (grey to dark-grey, some with bright pink patches of skin). Some manuscripts describe real elephants in their natural appearance with advice on their character and whether or not to keep them. Similar manuscripts exist for cats, horses, birds and dogs. The elephant treatise above is available online from the British Library.

Folding book containing poetry and prosody (chanlaksana); held at the Bavarian State Library, Munich (Cod.siam. 98)

Folding book containing poetry and prosody (chanlaksana); held at the Bavarian State Library, Munich (Cod.siam. 98)

Thai poetry flourished during the period of King Narai’s reign (1656-1688) as the king was a poet of great merit himself. Poetry and prosody books served as primers and standard textbooks for teaching reading and writing to children and youths well into the Rattanakosin era (19th century). Traditionally, epic narratives and dramas were written in verse form, but poetry also served to praise the Lord Buddha, to honour meritorious people, or to celebrate the beauty of nature and landscapes. Sometimes poems were arranged like a secret code so that only a person who knew the key was able to understand the poem. The manuscript shown above contains a number of beautifully illustrated poems together with poems arranged in diagrams in honour of a beloved lady. The fully digitised manuscript is available online from the Bavarian State Library via the World Digital Library.

Jana Igunma (British Library)

Report from the SEALG Annual Meeting 2016, Copenhagen

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The Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asia Library Group 2016 took place on 24-25 June 2016 in Copenhagen (Denmark), hosted by the Library of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS).

Participants from Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Thailand and the United Kingdom attended this year’s meeting.

On Friday morning, 24 June, all conference participants and guests were welcomed by their host, Inga-Lill Blomkvist, NIAS Library & Information Centre, and Dr. Doris Jedamski, Chair of the Southeast Asia Library Group.

Holger Warnk opened the first panel with his paper on “Malay Islamic Publishing in Malaysia in Jawi Script”. The Arab-based Jawi script has been used for the Malay language for centuries. However, in religious publishing for pupils, students and scholars affiliated with traditional Islamic schools in Malaysia the speaker noted a drastic decline in recent years and a growing tendency toward using the Latin script instead in religious publications. Holger emphasized the urgency of collecting those diminishing publications in Jawi more systematically, as had been done by Sophia University (Tokyo).
Sud Chonchirdsin spoke on the “Vietnamese Manuscripts at the British Library”, which for obvious reasons, so he noted, were clearly outnumbered by the plentiful collections of hand-written books in Burmese or Thai kept in London but which, nonetheless, represent various historical and literary styles. Sud elaborated on the various variants in script and language of those Vietnamese books and scrolls and also analyzed the mythical animal symbolism present in the beautifully illustrated manuscripts influenced by Chinese traditions.

The second session commenced with Preedee Hongsaton and his presentation on “Thai Cremation Volumes: Precious Sources for Historical Research”. Preedee depicted the beginnings of this particular genre and further development since the l880s. Cremation volumes, limited editions of chiefly Buddhist texts, also often provide valuable biographical information on the deceased, and therefore they can form magnificent sources in the field of social history, the history of emotions, and social anthropology. Predee primarily related to his research of the rich collection of more than 4.000 titles in ca. 3.000 volumes kept in the National Library of Australia.
Jotika Khur-Yearn then presented his paper “Following the Footprints: H. J. Inman and his Remarkable Works on Shan Manuscripts at SOAS University of London”. Jotika gave an overview of the collection of Shan manuscripts at SOAS Library with a focus on two particular manuscripts that have been well researched by Captain J. H. Inham who taught Shan at SOAS between 1936 and 1948. Inham, in particular, pioneered the studies of Shan literature and manuscripts which to date have been heavily understudied.

After the lunch break [lovely Scandinavian sandwiches served at the conference venue] it was time for the last presentation. Doris Jedamski reflected on “What’s in an Archive?”. She presented fascinating examples of several recently acquired archives, both from private persons and organization and associations, still to be processed and added to the Leiden University Library collections. Among the examples were the Jager-Maasen family archive, the research archives of the scholars Hildred Geertz and Frans Hüsken, as well as the so-called Koopman-archive covering four generations of Dutch colonial power, but also the archive of the Batavia Voetbal Club (1903-1955) and its alumnis.

In the afternoon the conference participants visited the Royal Library, where the Research Librarian Bent Lerbæk Pedersen showed us a great number of treasures from the Southeast Asian manuscript collections. Among them were Batak tree-bark books (pustaha), Khmer books and Burmese manuscripts, Javanese palm leaf manuscripts (lontar) and letters to the Danish merchant-adventurer Mads Lange written by his Balinese wife on palm-leaf in Malay language. After Bent’s retirement next year, his position will most probably not be filled again. The day ended with a lovely conference dinner in the wonderfully Danish Toldbod Bodega.

On Saturday, 25 June, we were kindly allowed to hold our Annual SEALG Business Meeting at the conference venue at NIAS. Present were Inga-Lill Blomkvist, Christophe Caudron, Sud Chonshirdin, Claudia Götze-Sam, Per Hansen, Doris Jedamski, Jotika Khur-Yearn, Holger Warnk, and Gerald Jackson, who attended part of the meeting as a guest. Apologies had been received from Annabel Gallop, Jana Igunma, Mikihiro Moriyama, Margaret Nicholson, Louise Pichard-Bertaux, San San May, and Mia Nilsson.

Doris Jedamski welcomed all participants. After establishing the quorum, she presented the agenda, the minutes from the Annual Meeting 2015 in Paris, and the financial report that once again had been compiled by our treasurer Margaret Nicholson. The following item on the agenda was the election of the committee. Doris Jedamski as Chair, Holger Warnk as Vice-Chair, Margaret Nicholson as treasurer and Jotika Khur-Yearn as Secretary of SEALG were re-elected in these functions. Louise Pichard-Bertaux had informed the committee beforehand that she had decided to step down as member of the committee due to her new work situation. Christophe Caudron and Mia Nilsson (in absence) were welcomed as new members of the committee. All other committee members were confirmed. Jana Igunma, also confirmed as member of the committee, had beforehand agreed to continue her work on the SEALG Newsletter and SEALG blog with the support of other committee members.

Responding to a proposal from the well-known and experienced academic publisher NIAS Press, represented by Gerald Jackson, the long aspired and repeatedly discussed SEALG book project had been put back on the agenda. Gerald Jackson kindly joined the meeting to discuss a possible joint NIAS-SEALG project that should exceed a mere conference volume. Gerald presented his ideas to the group: the proposed book should be no erratic compilation of articles but a means to put Southeast Asian Studies and the collections back on the map. Such publication could even serve as some kind of handbook to be used for profiling several special Southeast Asian collections in relation to the world of teaching and research. For this purpose, it would be essential to bring together librarians/curators and scholars/researchers with experiences with particular Southeast Asian collections and to spark a dialogue between both parties. This dialogue could be documented in the book as well. A first ‘brainstorming’ could take the form of a panel at the EUROSEAS conference 2017 in Oxford. Questions to be raised might include: What is collecting, how does it change (Jedamski)? What are the sources or materials, how are these items used (Caudron)? How does in the age of information science the use of sources change and effect research (Caudron)? What kind of sources will survive – both physical and digital (Jackson)? Furthermore Gerald raised the question what audience the proposed book should address: should it be an academic book or a kind of source book? He mentioned the option to think of an additional series with volumes focusing on one particular region at a time. The reactions covered both enthusiasm and apprehension; in particular practical aspects were brought forward: Who will do the extra-load of work that it will take to put together such a book? How to cover the various regions equally? Is this kind of publication really necessary – aren’t there enough other platforms to promote our collections/activities.
It was agreed to set up a group that should look into the possibilities of organizing a EUROSEAS panel in preparation for the proposed publication. A tentative title will be needed soon but could not be formulated as yet. Gerald agreed to contact a couple of scholars who might be interested, so did Christophe Chaudron, Doris Jedamski and Holger Warnk. Doris and Holger announced already their willingness to be members of the steering group.

The meeting continued with the reports from the participants. Many members rendered somber news all related to budget cutbacks and extensive workload. However, there were also proud reports of successfully completed projects as well as new initiatives:

Inga-Lill Blomkvist reported on the long-term effects that the drastic changes of the recent years have brought about: The fusion of the NIAS collection with the University Library has more or less anonymized the NIAS collection. For scholars visiting NIAS, the change of location results in time-consuming travelling, the reduction of staff has made it more difficult to support and facilitate research activities. However, Inga-Lill has accepted the challenge and expressed her keen interest to expand the digital collections of NIAS.
Christophe Caudron provided an overview of the IrASIA and CREDO libraries in Maison Asie-Pacifique in Marseille. Serving two universities, his library faces various challenges. As in many other libraries space for books might become a problem soon.
Claudia Götze-Sam announced the good news that their application to the Specialized Application Services provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DfG) has been successful. Together with their partners from the South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg this special budget will secure the acquisition of books on and from Southeast Asia for the coming years. Moreover, Claudia told us about the special training programmes that have been introduced for their library users.
Holger Warnk informed the group that in May 2016 an electronic loan system was finally introduced at the Library of Southeast Asian Studies at Frankfurt. This new loan system allows for inter-librarian loan. The integration of the OPAC of the former Asia House Library is still delayed due to severe technical problems. Furthermore, Holger evaluated last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, in particular the performance of its Special Guest of Honour, Indonesia.
Per Hansen mentioned dramatic budget cuts which might lead to the dismissal of numerous colleagues. He also gave a short account of the acquisition policies, which strikingly enough exclusively allows the Asian Studies collections to buy printed materials, unfortunately on Social Sciences only.
Jotika Khur-Yearn reported that the SOAS Jubilee in 2016 will see the opening of a new building for the school in September 2016 which then will also include several exhibitions. SOAS Library has carried out several cooperations with British Library, e.g. in digitalization projects. However, SOAS Library has also faced budget cuts, which will affect staff members, but not the acquisition of books.
Sud Chonchirdsin provided a summary of the latest developments at British Library. The retro-cataloguing of the old card catalogue of books in vernacular languages will be continued as well as the digitization of Southeast Asian manuscripts. The new Asia-Africa Blog of the library has attracted a great many visitors and apparently had quite some impact on the website. Finally, it is now allowed for users to use their own cameras in the reading rooms.
Doris Jedamski informed the group about the progress of the Asia Library at Leiden University which will formally opened in September 2017. This achievement will be celebrated with an “Asia Year” in 2017 in the city of Leiden and beyond. The large-scale preparations are ongoing and very time-consuming. Apart from a book publication, there are three exhibitions planned for 2017, all involving the South and Southeast Asian collections. Massive retro-cataloguing projects have started and parts of the collection are being digitized. At the same time the UB Leiden has chosen to introduce various new programmes, for instance ALMA, MARC 21, or Islandora. On top of that, the website is also entirely renewed.

The next item on the agenda was the SEALG Meeting 2017. It was agreed that an effort will be made to organize next year’s meeting once again as a panel of the EUROSEAS Conference, which will take place in Oxford, on 15-18 August 2017. The deadline for the submission of panel proposals has not been announced yet on the EUROSEAS website. A SEALG proposal will be put together as soon as possible. We hope again to attract participants and audience from both the library and the scholarly world.
Leiden was mentioned as an option for a joint SEALG-SAALG conference in 2018.
The discussion on possible SEALG fund raising has been postponed again due to lack of time, but shall be put on the agenda for the committee meeting in 2017.

Concluding the meeting, and on behalf of Jana Igunma, Doris briefly reported on the SEALG weblog and forwarded Jana’s appeal to all members to send in contributions.

Concluding this report, our thanks go to Inga-Lill Blomkvist and her team from NIAS for the perfect organization of a wonderful meeting!

Doris Jedamski, Holger Warnk

Presentation at the SEALG Annual Meeting at NIAS, Copenhagen

Presentation at the SEALG Annual Meeting at NIAS, Copenhagen

Update from the Changi Digitisation Project, Cambridge

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The Changi project team at Cambridge University Library have recently finished a major conservation challenge, the archives of John Weekley. In a new blog post John Cardwell, Project Archivist, and Emma Nichols, Project Conservator, discuss the content and challenges presented by this important part of the Changi Archive.

John Weekley served as an area commandant in the Changi and Sime Road men’s civilian internment camps for almost the entire three and a half year period of their existence. As a senior member of the camps’ administration, his papers are an invaluable source for understanding their day to day management. Many are notices disseminating information to internees, and those relating to diet, health and hygiene shed significant light upon the medical history of the camps. They record the organisation of medical services through the foundation of a hospital and the appointment of a Chief Medical Officer, a Chief Health Officer, a Medical Reference Committee, and a Fatigues Medical Board responsible for the health and safety the camps’ many workers.

The John Weekley Archive forms one of the ten conservation work packages in the Changi Archive and is by far the largest; consisting of over a thousand leaves of paper, adhered by their left hand edge into several thicker paper folded covers. The papers are all of differing sizes – from A4 to 1 cm strips; weights – from thick paper to very thin transparent paper known as onion skin; and colours – classic white and cream to violent shades of pink, yellow and blue. Though each folder had originally been one solid block of papers, over time, probably through a combination of intent and accident, the leaves had been separated into sections of varying number, adhered together but no longer to the cover. All of the leaves had sustained some kind of damage ranging from tears, losses and skinning, to staining from the adhesive.

To find out more details about the John Weekley Archive and how conservation work was carried out, including photographs documenting the conservation process, please visit John Cardwell’s and Emma Nichols’ article on “The History and Conservation of the John Weekley Changi Archives”.

Digital Humanities for Asian and African Texts – report from a workshop

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On 6 June, 2016, a one-day workshop dedicated to the theme “Digital Humanities for Asian and African Texts” took place at SOAS, London, which was attended by approximately 40 participants from a variety of UK and European institutions.

The first session focused on digitisation projects and the scholarly use of such projects for research and teaching. The first presenter, Erich Kesse (SOAS Library, with Christine Wise) spoke on “Current digital projects at SOAS and future plans for Asian and African texts” and gave an overview of a variety of digitisation projects carried out by SOAS Library, which by now have made approximately 18,000 items available online. He highlighted certain aspects of technical requirements, cataloguing and standards, metadata and coding, funding, commercial partnerships and co-operation with SOAS exhibitions.

Lars Lamaan (SOAS) and Fresco Sam-Sin (Leiden University) presented a paper on “Manchu online study and research environment: from scrum to crowd sourcing” and explained the importance of Manchu sources for historical research and the significance of transliteration, translation and annotation tools in digital manuscript/text collections. Fresco Sam-Sin also demonstrated his digital research and learning platform Manc.hu that is used as a collaborative online classroom for university students.

Almut Hintze (SOAS) followed with a talk on “The multimedia Yasna”, a project that deals with a Zoroastrian ritual of the Parsi community in India in which the oral tradition of memorising texts plays a more important role than the written tradition. The aim of the project is to learn more about the oral texts used in this ritual by recording the performance, editing the recording, transcription and transliteration of texts, creation of metadata and finally provision of online and print editions.

Dmitry Bondarev (SOAS/University of Hamburg) gave an introduction to “Old Kanembu Islamic manuscripts: digital collection, archive, database?”, a project that aims to enable more and better linguistic research into Kanembu Islamic manuscripts found in West Africa, particularly the comparison of different versions of texts.

Jody Butterworth (British Library) presented an overview of the British Library’s “The Endangered Archives Programme: digitising vulnerable material around the world”. The priority of this project is to preserve material that is under threat due to natural disasters or political conflicts – not only manuscripts, but also newspapers, photographs, audio-visual material, family archives etc. – and to make it available online for research. The project has worked with over 290 partners in 80 countries.

The second session emphasized concepts and methods of Digital Humanities for Asian and African Studies. The first speaker in this session, David Beavan (UCL) presented “A Beginners guide to Digital Humanities”, giving an overview of the general steps digitisation, transcription and analysis involved in digitisation projects for scholarly research. He gave advice on project planning, transcription softwares, as well as quantitative methods for analysis.

Nora McGregor (British Library) spoke about “Doing digital research at the British Library with Asian and African Collections” and her involvement in various initiatives of the library’s Digital Research Team which include Big Data creation, Crowdsourcing, PhD placements, Digital Scholarship, training programmes for library staff etc.

Finally, Chris Dillon (UCL) presented a paper on “Community sourcing and non-Latin scripts” in connection with his project Bridge to China, a free online grammar of Mandarin, that was created by community sourcing.

The workshop was a great opportunity to meet people working in various areas of Asian and African Studies who, at the same time, are also engaging with Digital Humanities. The presenters demonstrated how long-standing research traditions can be linked with newly emerging methods and technologies, new perspectives and research practices.

Glimpses of early Siam and Burma (Thailand and Myanmar)

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The Royal Commonwealth Society Library has just created an electronic catalogue for one of its largest and most significant manuscript collections: the papers of the diplomat, colonial administrator and orientalist Henry Burney (1792-1845). Burney was born in Calcutta, the son of a Senior Master of the Calcutta Military School for Orphans. His grandfather was the musicologist Dr Charles Burney and his aunt the novelist Frances Burney. Burney was commissioned into the East India Company’s army in 1808, but transferred to its political service when appointed Military Secretary to the Governor of Penang in 1818. From 1825 he served as Political Agent to the states adjacent to Penang and led several political missions. From the beginning of his career, Burney had displayed a gift for oriental languages, soon mastering Hindustani, and during this time he acquired Siamese and Malay. Burney’s grasp of local politics and languages led to his appointment as Envoy to the Court of Siam, and he travelled to Bangkok in September 1825. By June 1826 he had successfully negotiated a treaty with the King.

In 1827 Burney was posted to the new British province of Tenasserim, which had been acquired during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), serving as Deputy Commissioner of Tavoy. Burney immediately began learning Burmese. In 1829, he acted decisively to suppress a rebellion. His diplomatic experience and linguistic skill were further recognised in 1829 with the appointment as the Indian government’s representative to the Burmese Court. Burney arrived at the capital of Ava on 24 April 1830, establishing the first British Residency. Burney’s study of Burmese (with the aid of a tutor) had advanced so rapidly that by April 1832 he was able to communicate directly with the Burmese ministers in their own language. He enjoyed initial success, resolving the problem of banditry on the Arakan and Tenasserim frontiers and a territorial dispute on the Manipur border. He also persuaded the Burmese government to pay the final instalment of the indemnity owed as part of the war’s settlement.

King Bagyidaw appreciated Burney’s efforts to foster good relations, honouring him with a Burmese title inscribed on gold leaf, Mahaz-eyayazanawrahta, accompanied with a badge of office, a nine-stranded salwe. Burney’s position, however, was undermined in 1837 when Bagyidaw was deposed by the Prince of Tharrawaddy, who later became King, and he found it difficult to work with the new regime. Burney was recalled on 8 March 1838 and went on furlough to England. In 1842, he returned to active service with the EIC army, but died at sea in 1845 while travelling to England on medical leave.

The collection preserves important records of Burney’s diplomatic missions: his instructions, travel, correspondence, journals and reports, which include rare insight into the Siamese and Burmese Courts. It also contains examples of traditional texts, such as Siamese kradat phlao and Burmese black parabaiks and palm leaf manuscripts. Burney shared the family’s intellectual curiosity and literary flair, and was fascinated by Siamese and Burmese culture. He researched the two countries’ climate, geography, languages, history, philosophy, religion, astronomy, mathematics and astrology, and collected important translations from original sources. Burney presented papers to learned bodies such as the Royal Asiatic Society and published in the ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal’, the ‘Asiatic Journal’ and the ‘Journal of the Statistical Society.’ During the early 1840s, Burney received permission from the EIC to publish the journal of his mission to Siam and it is possible that he also contemplated writing a pioneering English language history of Burma. With the resumption of his military career, ill health and an early death at the age of 53, however, these plans never came to fruition. The RCS is also fortunate to possess a number of early photograph collections relating to Burma dating from the 1870s (RCS Y3029A-F), which complement the Burney archive.

The Janus catalogue of the Henry Burney Collection, RCMS 65, is now available online via the Janus homepage, a project that provides access to more than 1800 catalogues of archives held throughout Cambridge.

Reported by Dr John Cardwell, Archivist of the Royal Commonwealth Society collections in Cambridge University Library

Photograph showing Thibaw (d. 1916), the last King of Burma 1878-85, and his wife and half-sister Supyalat [RCS Y3029D_1]

Photograph showing Thibaw (d. 1916), the last King of Burma 1878-85, and his wife and half-sister Supyalat [RCS Y3029D_1]

Lanna manuscripts – Online Collection of Northern Thai Chronicles and Other Texts

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The project Lanna Manuscripts – คัมภีร์ล้านนา was launched in 2005 in the premises of the Siam Society in Bangkok. The initial aim was to test the procedures that had been devised for the digitisation of manuscripts. The rich manuscript library of the Society placed under the responsibility of Achan Term Mitem, a well-known specialist from the National Archives of Thailand, provided an ideal venue for such a ‘pilot’ project. Seventeen manuscripts — all tamnan — from the library were digitised, and they were the first documents of this digital collection.

Between 2006 and 2011 numerous field-trips took place, scouting Northern Thailand province by province. The Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre in Bangkok, an institute under the supervision of the Thai Ministry of Culture, provided the official backing that enabled project workers to gain access to the collections stored in local repositories.

After visiting hundreds of monasteries, forty-one of them were selected either for their rich collections or for their rare manuscripts. In each monastery, the manuscripts deemed worth being integrated into the corpus were studied and photographed in situ. No copies were ever displaced or borrowed. These manuscripts constitute now the main bulk of this online database.

Descriptive records containing textual and paratextual information on the manuscripts were first entered in text files, and later integrated into a prototype database. Then, in Paris, the EFEO provided support for transforming the original database into a MySQL Internet database, which took shape in 2013. Then the photographs of all the leaves of each manuscript were edited and inserted into the viewer component of the database. Thumbnail images of the titles were inserted in every record and series of supplementary photographs relating to monasteries, libraries and conservation of the manuscripts, were added in the form of albums.

This online collection is aimed at students and researchers interested in philology, literature and history of Thailand, especially texts representative of Northern Thai Buddhism. Over 18,000 pages of manuscripts have been digitised with the focus on a principal genre, the chronicles and traditional stories called tamnan (ตำนาน) which are Buddhist narratives of foundation composed almost entirely in the Northern Thai language and tham (Dhamma) script. For reasons of regional linguistic and cultural unity that kind of text developed throughout the Tai area of Southeast Asia (among the Thai, Lao, Shan and Tai peoples) but especially in the ancient kingdom of Lanna, which covered at least the nine northern provinces of Thailand. The project website does not only give access to the digitised manuscripts, but also provides rich information on Northern Thai literary traditions, Lanna manuscripts collections elsewhere, bibliographic resources, and photo galleries illustrating various aspects of manuscripts production, storage, preservation etc.

 

Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asia Library Group 2016

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Copenhagen, 24-25 June 2016

You are cordially invited to participate in the SEALG Annual Meeting 2016 to be held in collaboration with the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Copenhagen from June 24 to 25, 2016.

As in the years before, the SEALG Meeting combined with a one-day-conference will be a fabulous opportunity to meet with colleagues from all over Europe (and possibly beyond). We all encounter similar problems in this rapidly changing world of libraries and archives. SEALG hopes to stimulate the exchange of information among Southeast Asian librarians, to strengthen the network and to help facilitate our everyday work.

Participation in the SEALG Annual Meeting offers SEALG members also the opportunity to present their original work and/or to report about projects and initiatives from their institutions. Apart from librarians we also wish to encourage scholars to contribute to the conference with a presentation or a research paper focussing on library collections (for more information please see the attached Call for Papers). Hence, please forward this invitation to researchers who might be interested in attending the SEALG meeting/conference.

The SEALG Annual Meeting including the conference part will take place at:

NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at University of Copenhagen, City Campus, Bld 18, 1, fl., Øster Farimagsgade 5, 1353 Copenhagen

In preparation of the SEALG Annual Meeting 2016, we invite proposals for papers on any theme relating to collections, archives and the library work as well as recent developments in the field of South East Asian Studies.

A paper presentation should not exceed 30 minutes (including time for questions/discussion). Paper abstracts should be no more than 200 words and must include a title, author’s name and affiliation, as well as contact details.

Please submit your paper proposal including abstract to Inga-Lill M Blomkvist not later than by 31 May 2016. We encourage submissions from library and archive staff as well as from scholars and graduate students.

Publication of a paper will be possible in the SEALG Newsletter which is online at www.sealg.org.

For more information, please contact either Inga-Lill Blomkvist or Doris Jedamski .

Map of the venue of the SEALG annual meeting 2016 in Copenhagen

Map of the venue of the SEALG annual meeting 2016 in Copenhagen

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