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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.

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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.

 

Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts

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The University of Pennsylvania and National Library of Laos have launched the Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts as a resource for the study of traditional literature from this region. At present, the digital library contains images of over 4,200 manuscripts which can be searched and viewed online or freely downloaded, and to which more manuscripts will be added subsequently.

The database contains four collections: digitised microfilms from the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts Project (with permission of Chiang Mai University Library), digitised microfilms and also handwritten copies of manuscripts made in the early 1970s during research conducted by Harald Hundius, and directly-digitised manuscripts made during the current digital library project.

A gallery with images from temples which were involved in the project, as well as a collection of written and online resources for further study complement the database.

All digitisation was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, and the digital library project was funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. The project was implemented by the National Library of Laos, based on the existing Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts.

We hope that the digital library will be a useful resource for the study of traditional literature from this region.  Feedback on the site is welcome.

Reported by Justin McDaniel (DLNTM Project Leader, University of Pennsylvania), Harald Hundius (DLNTM Local Project Leader, National Library of Laos), David Wharton (DLNTM Technical Director, National Library of Laos)

Manuscript Chest, Wat Phan On © 2015 David Wharton, Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Manuscript Chest, Wat Phan On
© 2015 David Wharton, Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Corpus of the Inscriptions of Campā online

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In 2009, the French School of Asian Studies (École française d’Extrême-Orient, EFEO) launched the project Corpus of the Inscriptions of Campā (CIC), aiming to renew the tradition of scholarship on these inscriptions that had thrived at the institution in the early 20th century.

The primary aim of the project is to update and to continue the EFEO inventory of the inscriptions of Campā, compiled in the early decades of the 20th century by the renowned scholar George Cœdès. In this inventory, each inscription received a unique ‘C.’ number (C = Campā), under which were recorded various types of useful information, such as: the place where the inscription had been found; the place where it was currently located (if it had been moved after discovery); the language(s) used in it; its date; availability of reproductions of it in public libraries; bibliography of publications about the inscription. A first version of this inventory was published in 1908, comprising 118 entries; a revised and updated version came out in 1923, and at that time the list comprised 170 entries; supplements published in 1937 and 1942 raised the total first to 196, and finally to 200 entries. After this, the inventory fell into disuse, and for many decades there was no central registration of newly discovered inscriptions, or of changes in the situation of previously registered items.

And it was not only the maintenance of an inventory that came to be neglected. After a small handful of publications of inscriptions of Campā by EFEO scholars that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, the study of these inscriptions, inside and outside the EFEO, came to a complete stop due to World War II and the subsequent period of Vietnamese struggle for independence and reunification. At that time, only about half of all known inscriptions had been published, and in general the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit language had received much more attention — at least it had advanced more significantly — than that of inscriptions in Cam. Most Cam-language inscriptions whose texts had been published, had been published without translations. Even the existing translations were almost never precise renderings of the originals, but rather loose patch-works of understood, guessed and ignored elements of the originals. In this situation, the second important aim of the CIC project is to publish texts and translations of the inscriptions whose existence was known but had not yet been published; bring out texts and translations of newly discovered inscriptions; publish translations of texts that had been published without any translations; and, last but not least, review the texts published by previous scholars, which often allows the correction of wrong readings, and hence improvement in the interpretation of texts published a long time ago.

The project has opted for a two-pronged publication strategy. Results are being published in traditional print publications, both through international journals (mainly in French), and through publications in Vietnam (using Vietnamese). But simultaneously an online database is being developed, bringing together the corpus in its entirety, and presenting the most up-to-date versions of descriptions and translations of the individual inscriptions. About fifty detailed descriptions, some with translations, are accessible on this database already, with more information being added continuously. A very useful bibliography complements these online descriptions. To access the list of inscriptions, please view the homepage of the Corpus of the Inscriptions of Campā (CIC).

National Museum of Cambodia catalogue online

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The National Museum of Cambodia that was founded in 1920 houses one of the world’s greatest collections of Khmer cultural material including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods.

The Museum promotes awareness, understanding and appreciation of Cambodia’s heritage through the presentation, conservation, safekeeping, interpretation and acquisition of Cambodian cultural material. It aims to educate and inspire its visitors.

The turmoil of recent decades has devastated all aspects of Cambodian life including the cultural realm. During the years of Khmer Rouge control the Museum, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was evacuated and abandoned. The Museum suffered from neglect during this time and after the liberation of Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979 it was found in disrepair, its roof rotten, collection in disarray and garden overgrown. The Museum was quickly tidied up and reopened to the public on 13 April 1979. Tragically, however, many of the Museum’s employees had lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime. The resulting loss of expertise, combined with the deterioration of the Museum building and its collection, have made rehabilitation of the Museum a daunting task.

Despite such obstacles the last decade has seen considerable progress, with generous assistance from individuals, foreign governments and numerous philanthropic organizations.

The CKS National Museum Collection Inventory Project (2004-2010) has brought a revitalized sense of order to the Museum’s collection andpersonal confidence to trained Museum staff, who now oversee this important ongoing project. It has greatly assisted the Museum’s international exhibition and publications programs, identification and repatriation of missing works of art, links with re-established provincial collections and the fostering of both established and newly formed conservation workshops in stone, metal and ceramics. It has won international acclaim.

Most importantly, the location and condition of thousands of works of art in storage have been digitally catalogued, with works arranged in a logical and systematic way. Ongoing agendas include digital photography of every work, scanning of extant French inventory cards and cross-referencing the past and present catalogue systems.

Members from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and staff of the National Museum of Cambodia, together with the Center for Khmer Studies and the Leon Levy Foundation have joined in celebrating the public launch of the ‘National Museum of Cambodia: On-line’ on 3rd January 2014.

A three-year grant from the Leon Levy Foundation has enabled all the primary text and image files produced over a six-year period to be incorporated into a database that is used to fully catalogue the museum collection in addition to providing access to search the present collection on-line in both Khmer and English.

This purpose-built database based on international museum software is the work of Khmer Dev INC, Phnom Penh working in tandem with the museum’s IT programmer – proudly a Cambodian enterprise. It is a necessarily complex system that incorporates demands for three language texts English, French, Khmer, digital colour images and scanned catalogue cards. It performs a host of secondary functions other than ‘search the collection’. The database can be used to off-print museum labels to specified formats, produce loan documentation, has entries for reportage, conservation records with varying formats for search lists as required. One special feature is the capability of this system to be exported to the Cambodian provinces and a version of the cataloguing system made available to staff outside the capital enabling them to catalogue their own collections. Khmer-English glossaries, terminology and geographic location indexes & etc. can be directly sourced from the National Museum system.

Current cataloguing of the collection as at end of December 2013 within eleven categories stands at:
01-Stone 3,307; 02-Ceramics 4,316; 03-Metal 7,367; 04-Textiles 229; 05-Paintings 49; 06-Wood 494; 07-Manuscripts 481; 08-Plastic 30; 09-Glass 32; 10-Skin 21 & 11-Horn 112.

The Museum collection now stands at a total of 16,438 works of art. In 2004, at the commencement of the programs, an estimate of the Museum’s collection numbered around 14,000 objects.

An integral part of cataloguing works of art is documentation and identification – researching art styles, periods in addition to provenance, or history of ownership. Using the new Database Project resources, the Museum is now in a position to digitally present its internationally-famed collection.

The databse, which is being updated regularly, is accessible through the Museum’s homepage.

Digital Archive of Research on Thailand (DART)

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The DART project is a collaboration between the University of Washington (UW) and research institutions in Thailand to provide online access to qualitative and quantitative social science research data on Thailand. Goals of the DART project are to: 1) develop best practices for digital archiving of multiple-format social science research materials and data, including rights and cultural property management; 2) develop a metadata schema and system design which allow for inter-operability of data for different uses; 3) surveying, aggregating, normalizing and cataloging data for inclusion a central registry at the UW.

To this date, DART consists primarily of collections of ethnographic and anthropological materials collected by academics and researchers in Thailand in the 1960s through 1970s. Current DART collections are held in the following repositories: University of Washington Special Collections, Seattle, USA; and the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, Bangkok, Thailand.

The project has started in 2006 by digitizing and indexing the archives of the Tribal Museum of Chiang Mai, where a huge number of documents, photographs and newspaper articles had been collected by the researchers of the former Tribal Research Institute between 1960 and 1990.

The recovery of Thailand’s ethnic and cultural heritage is the main goal of this project. The digital archive has become an essential tool for research and teaching as they include resources for education, research and for visual anthropology. They also include resources useful to local communities and NGOs.

Asian bookbinding traditions

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Asian bookbinding traditions which can be found in the Southeast Asian manuscript cultures as well are the subject of a research paper by Colin Chinnery and Li Yi (International Dunhuang Project).

This research paper combines textual descriptions together with diagrams illustrating binding techniques and photographs of a selection of objects. The aim of the paper is to give a comprehensive introduction to the different kinds of Chinese bookbinding contained in the Dunhuang collections. Included are details about butterfly binding, stitched binding, palm-leaf binding (pothi), whirlwind binding, concertina binding, and wrapped-back binding.

Bookbinding methods found in the Dunhuang collections. Diagram by Li Yi and Colin Chinnery (British Library)

Bookbinding methods found in the Dunhuang collections. Diagram by Li Yi and Colin Chinnery (British Library)

The International Dunhuang Project is a ground-breaking international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet and to encourage their use through educational and research programmes.

The IDP has partner institutions in Beijing, St Petersburg, Kyoto, Berlin, Dunhuang, Paris and Seoul which provide data for and act as hosts to the multilingual website and database.

Much of IDP’s early work focused on conservation and cataloguing, both of which remain core activities. These have been supplemented in the past few years with digitisation, education and research. IDP started digitising the manuscripts in 1997 with the aim of bringing together the collections in virtual space. Its web site went online in October 1998 and allows free access to the IDP DATABASE with high-quality images of the manuscripts and other material, with cataloguing and contextual information. In this way, Silk Road material is becoming increasingly available to academic and general users alike.

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