In the past decade we have seen an increasing number of projects to preserve and to digitize palm leaf manuscripts, especially in countries that historically have a strong palm leaf manuscript tradition. Hand in hand with digitization go registration and cataloguing of the manuscripts, as well as conservation treatment to restore damaged palm leaves and to preserve the original physical manuscripts for future generations alongside the digital images. The conservation of palm leaves is becoming increasingly important as large numbers of palm leaf manuscripts have been discovered in Buddhist temples and private collections in South and Southeast Asia. But also in library and museum collections in the West palm leaf manuscripts that need urgent conservation treatment have come to light. Whereas most library and museum conservators will have access to specialist and academic publications on the conservation of palm leaves, people who work with palm leaf manuscripts and those with a general interest in this material will find open-access resources on this topic useful.

Burmese Buddhist cosmology incised on palm leaves, 19th century.
British Library, Or 15283

A decade ago we published in our very own SEALG Newsletter an article with “Workshop Notes on the Conservation and Stabilization of Palm Leaf Manuscripts” by David Jacobs (SEALG Newsletter 2010). The former British Library conservator describes in the first part how palm leaf manuscripts are made. He then discusses preservation and conservation problems before presenting his experiences with British Library conservation treatments of palm leaves in more detail.

P. Perumal, former conservator at Sarasvti Mahal Library, Thanjavur, discusses in a blog on “Preventive conservation of palm leaf manuscripts” (2013) various factors that contribute to the deterioration of palm leaves. The article highlights the importance and methods of preventive conservation, including indigenous methods of pest management.

An informative short documentary film “Preserving Khmer Manuscript” (2014) was produced in connection with a project of the EFEO-FEMC for the preservation of Khmer manuscripts in Cambodia. It is estimated that only about 2% of the Cambodian literature heritage survived the destruction in the 1970s. The film (in Khmer language with English subtitles) looks at how Khmer palm leaf manuscripts were rediscovered, catalogued, scanned and restored.

The Preservation Lab reports about the examination, preservation and finding a suitable boxing solution for a “Nineteenth Century Buddhist Religious Treatise” (2016) from Burma. In this specific case, a physical surrogate was created for educational purposes to reduce the frequency of handling of the original manuscript. Both the manuscript and the surrogate were then stored in separate custom-made boxes.

An article published by the John Rylands Library looks at “Preserving Palm Leaf – A Sacred Manuscript Tradition” (August 2020) by highlighting some examples from their palm leaf manuscript collection and how they were created. Suggestions for the preservation of these precious manuscripts include storage in a climate controlled environment in acid-free enclosures, respecting the signs of wear, dirt and staining from oil and candles as evidence of their historical use, and minimal intervention to make manuscripts safe for handling, exhibition, digitisation and research while preserving their intangible value as sacred Buddhist objects.

The British Library’s conservation team reported about an interesting experiment to use leaf-casting for the conservation of heavily damaged palm leaves. The article “Magic in Conservation – using leaf-casting on paper and palm leaves” (October 2017) by Iwona Jurkiewicz describes in detail how the method of leaf-casting, which is mostly used in paper conservation, was applied successfully to repair a fragile Tamil manuscript.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator at the Chester Beatty Library, writes in her article “Delaminating and fraying fibres: developing an advanced treatment approach for the conservation of a 12th century palm leaf manuscript” (March 2020) about the conservation work carried out on a very rare and fragile Buddhist palm leaf manuscript in Sanskrit language from West Bengal. Of particular interest is her description of a newly developed method to treat delamination of palm leaves.

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Fragment of the Buginese La Galigo epos on scrolled palm leaf (late 19th or early 20th century) . The strokes of palm leaves are sewn together to form one long stroke. Cod.Or. 5475. Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

Particularly challenging is the conservation of rolled palm leaf manuscripts because even opening them without damage can be very difficult. The article “Conservation and digitisation of rolled palm leaf manuscripts in Nepal” (2005) by Naoko Takagi, Yoriko Chudo and Reiko Maeda provides details of the conservation, digitisation and safe storage in custom-made archival boxes of 400 rolled palm leaf manuscripts with clay seals housed at the Asa Archives in Kathmandu.

An article in the International Academic Forum’s Journal of Literature and Librarianship on the “Sustainable Preservation of Lanna Palm Leaf Manuscripts Based on Community Participation” (July 2020) written by Piyapat Jarusawat highlights a problem that many temple libraries in Buddhist countries face: the large numbers of palm leaf bundles in these collections, often thousands or even tens of thousands, require a different approach towards conservation which does not rely on a small team of manuscript conservation professionals. The author examines the traditional method of involving Buddhist lay communities in the preservation and conservation of manuscripts.

A talk by Ignatius Payyappilly on “Palm-leaf Manuscripts: The Legacy of Traditional Preservation and Conservation” given at Hamburg University (recorded August 2018) presents traditional methods of palm leaf preservation, including adequate storage, cleaning and oiling, repairing damaged palm leaves, use of natural insect repellents, fungicides and protective cloths and manuscript boxes.

The conservation of birch bark presents similar challenges as that of palm leaf. British Library conservator Elisabeth Randell explains in her article “The Mahārnava, Conservation of a 19th Century Birch Bark Manuscript“(May 2020) how a fragile birch bark manuscript from Kashmir was treated, focusing on how delaminated layers of bark, large tears and cracks were repaired.

For a more in-depth study of palm leaf conservation “A Selective Review of Scholarly Communications on Palm Leaf Manuscripts” (2016) by Jyotshna Sahoo is particularly useful. It encompasses a selective range of researches on palm leaf manuscripts published in academic journals, conference proceedings, commemorated volumes, reports of different projects and case studies that have appeared during a period coverage starting from 1947 to 2013. The literature reviewed is organized into five related themes: Antiquities, types and nature of manuscripts – Process of seasoning and writing over manuscripts – Factors of deterioration, preservation and conservation – Cataloguing, metadata standards and subject access to Manuscripts – Digitization of manuscripts.

Last but not least the Palm Leaf Wiki offers a “Bibliography on palm leaf preservation and conservation” which lists publications up to the year 2014.

Community participation in the preservation of palm leaf manuscripts (wrapping manuscripts with protective cloth) at Wat Sungmen in Phrae, Thailand, 2020. Photo credit: Wat Sungmen Manuscript Temple