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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.

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).

Changi digitisation project at Cambridge University Library

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Cambridge University Library has been awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Award to conserve, digitise and make freely available online the archives of two WWII civilian internment camps on Singapore – Changi and Sime Road. These form part of the Royal Commonwealth Society’s British Association of Malaysia and Singapore archives. The two-year grant commences in September 2015 and it is planned to launch the records in Cambridge Digital Library in August 2017.

The archives will be of immense interest to the families of internees, academic researchers, students and the general public, since few survivors ever spoke of their traumatic ordeal. The first stage of the project involves the meticulous conservation of the archives.

The archives contain invaluable primary sources for the reconstruction of the lives of Singapore’s civilian internees. They include official records compiled by the camps’ internal administration, which document personal data like an internee’s name, date entered camp, marital status, occupation, age, nationality, and camp address. Other sources shed light upon accommodation, camp discipline, relations with the Japanese authorities, work parties, diet, health and hygiene, recreation and leisure, the delivery of mail, and the repatriation of internees at the end of the war. Newspapers circulated within the male camp, such as the ‘Changi Guardian’, reported upon events, disseminated news of sporting, musical and theatrical societies, and published fiction, poetry and humour. These official records are complemented by the correspondence, diaries and memoirs of individual internees.

More information on the historical background and provenance of the archives can be found on the Cambridge University Library Special Collections webpage.

An article by Peng Han Lim on “Identifying and collecting primary sources of information to reconstruct the daily lives of the civilian internees at Changi Prison and Sime Road Camp 1942-45” is included in the SEALG Newsletter 2013.

Endangered Archives Programme – Call for applications 2015

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The Endangered Archives Programme has been running at the British Library since 2004 through funding by Arcadia, with the aim of preserving rare vulnerable archival material around the world. This aim is achieved through the award of grants to relocate the material to a safe local archival home where possible, to digitise the material, and to deposit copies with local archival partners and with the British Library. These digital collections are then available for researchers to access freely through the British Library website or by visiting the local archives. The digital collections from 144 projects are currently available online, nearly 5 million images.

The Endangered Archives Programme is now accepting grant applications for the next annual funding round – the deadline for submission of preliminary applications is 6 November 2015 and full details of the application procedures and documentation are available on the EAP website.

The Programme has helped to preserve manuscripts, rare printed books, newspapers and periodicals, audio and audio-visual materials, photographs and even rock inscriptions. Since 2004 approximately 270 projects have been funded, ranging from rare books in Armenia to Cham manuscripts in Vietnam.

To find out more about the Programme and previous digitisation projects, visit their Endangered Archives Blog.

(reported by Cathy Collins, Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library)

Locations of previous projects of the Endangered Archives Programme in Asia

Locations of previous projects of the Endangered Archives Programme in Asia