Last night (Thursday 5 April) the Society held an event to launch its new Digital Library, which you can find online here: http://royalasiaticcollections.org/. The launch event was an important opportunity to reflect on this significant undertaking, which will serve the Society’s mission to promote scholarly exchange, and public interest, in the histories and cultures of Asia.
The Digital Library is an online platform hosting digitized content from the Society’s Collections, and the whole site can be accessed by a worldwide audience, absolutely free of charge. The development of the site was generously funded by a grant from the Friends of the National Libraries (http://www.friendsofnationallibraries.org.uk/).
RAS President Gordon Johnson welcomed attendees, and discussed how the site relates to the Society’s vision and mission, and our other ongoing activities. He then handed over to me to provide a demonstration of the site and an explanation of the thinking behind its construction and content.
An online presence like this is particularly relevant to the Society, considering that most of our collections originate from Asia and are of immediate interest to people across Asia and around the world, who may never visit us in person. We already know from our presence on social media, particularly Twitter, that there is considerable appetite to engage with our collections from international users. Making them available online, for free, is an important service which helps us to reach a much wider audience. As well as showcasing important exhibits of Asian cultures, the site also helps demonstrate the ways in which British people, over the centuries, have learned about and been inspired by Asia and the wider world.
Of course, as well as international users we also want people in the UK to use the site, and the Digital Library should make it easier for people outside London to use the collections, or people whose jobs make it difficult to visit the Library during our necessarily restricted opening hours.
Another consideration behind the decision to launch a Digital Library is the rapid growth in the Society’s holdings of digital materials: both born-digital materials like Word documents and digital photographs, as well as digitized copies (or surrogates) of historic collections, such as photos of manuscripts. Having an online platform provides a way for us to make these collections available, which will only become more important as the proportion of digital material in our collections increases.
We had a number of concerns when we were planning the site and discussing it with the developers, Max Communications (http://maxcommunications.co.uk/). The first was that we wanted the site to be able to display a variety of different physical formats, reflecting the diversity of the Society’s collections. For example, we wanted the site to be able to display archives, manuscripts, and flat objects like painting, drawings, and photos. We also need to display manuscripts that read from left to right, as most Indo-European manuscripts do, and from right to left, as with our Arabic-script manuscripts; and from top to bottom, as with our palm leaf manuscripts.
We also wanted the site to be hierarchical. Hierarchy is a term often considered in a pejorative sense, but it’s an important concept in collection management because it makes explicit the relationships between objects; and, when you’re examining something on the site, we wanted it to be clear if it forms part of a larger collection. It was also particularly important that the site could reproduce the hierarchical nature of archival cataloguing.
The site needed to be expandable, rather than static: we envisage adding more content to the site over time, and so it’s important that the site was designed in such a way that RAS staff could upload new digital collections in future, and that this wouldn’t require detailed technical knowledge.
From the user’s point of view, we wanted the site to have relevance and appeal to both the specialist researcher and the general user, and to people of different ages. This means we need to be able to briefly explain and interpret material where necessary. We wanted the site to be easy and straightforward to browse, so a general user could find something of interest; but also that it was easy for the academic or specialist to find something specific. We also wanted the site to be fast to load, stable, and reliable, minimizing the chance that it would crash, and that users would become frustrated.
Overall, we also wanted the site to have a feel of quality and craftsmanship, befitting the importance and magnitude of the collections it contains, and also reflecting the heritage of the Society.
All in all, that adds up to quite a brief, particularly on a limited budget. We were very lucky to find a developer in Max Communications who were interested in our project and who were prepared to try and meet the challenges it represented, responding to our various requirements with sincere and credible solutions. Our vision for the site was complex and ambitious, and while there are probably places where we haven’t quite realized everything we set out to accomplish, the site does meet all our major requirements, and is something which we hope Fellows of the Society can feel proud of.
One of the central collections featured in the Digital Library is the digitized archive of Thomas Manning (1772-1840), who was one of Great Britain’s first Sinologists, and the Society’s Honorary Chinese Librarian. In 2015 the Society acquired a collection of Manning’s letters and correspondence, with support from a number of partners including the Heritage Memorial Fund, the Purchase Grant Fund, and the Friends of the National Libraries. The archive was catalogued by Nancy Charley, the Society’s Archivist, in 2016, and Max digitized the entire archive and devised a way to upload the images alongside Nancy’s catalogue. Not only has this important collection – a new source for the study of how British people in the early 1800s thought about Asia and the wider world – been saved for the nation, but it is now fully accessible by anyone with a computer and an internet connection. We should be able to apply the same technical process to other digitized archives in future.
The Digital Library launched with three exquisite Persian manuscripts, which are the RAS manuscripts on long-term loan at Cambridge University Library: the Shāhnāmah of Muhammad Juki, the Gulistan of Sa‘di, and the Masnavi of Zafar Khan. These were digitized with the support of Professor Charles Melville, Dr Firuza Melville and the Pembroke Shahnama Centre for Persian Studies, and Dr Barbara Brend, and they are also available on the Cambridge University Digital Library. We are proud to be able to display them on our own site, where the context of other RAS collections helps situate these manuscripts within the Society’s history, and enables us to better understand their historical contribution to how the Society has conceived, and sought to realize, its vision.
We were able to include 36 manuscripts from our Malay and Javanese collections, which were digitized last year in partnership with the National Library Board of Singapore. The Society’s collection is one of the most important repositories of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts, and we are particularly pleased that manuscripts such as Raffles Malay 18, the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, are now available online to view from anywhere in the world.
We added a selection of the Society’s oil paintings, depicting important figures in the history of the Society, as well as significant moments in the history of the encounter between Europe and Asia. The site also features the Society’s rare, early, and finely illustrated examples of the Indian game of Snakes and Ladders. These are eternally popular, and recently featured in an article in the Mail on Sunday. The site also includes the Brian Houghton Hodgson Collection of Nepalese drawings of the Kathmandu Valley, by Raj Man Singh Chitrakar, dating from 1844.
Then we have some more up-to-date collections from the twentieth century, in the form of the digitized version of our silent film documenting archaeological excavations at Nineveh, Iraq, around 1930, under the direction of British Assyriologist Reginald Campbell Thompson. We were also able to put online a recording of a 1966 radio programme in which Sir John Gielgud read an account of Thomas Manning’s narrative of his travels in Tibet in 1811-1812.
Since launching the site at the end of January, we have continued to add new content. So far, we’ve added sections for South Asian and East Asian Art. In the South Asian section, we’ve included the Society’s collections of portrait and landscape art formerly belonging to John Briggs, Charles Doyle, and John Staples Harriott. The highlight of the East Asian section is probably the album of 200 beautiful nineteenth-century Japanese theatrical prints donated by Herbert Fanshawe, which is too fragile to be handled by researchers, but which we are now able to make available online in its entirety.
The Society’s digital collections will continue to grow in the coming months and years, and we look forward to adding more major collections of material. Future developments of the site will be shaped by how it is used, and the feedback we receive. So please do use it, and let us know about your experience.
None of this means, however, that we are any less committed to caring for and promoting our existing physical collections, which have always been and always will be at the core of the Society’s purpose and identity. The digital library is not intended to be a substitute for our traditional activities, but rather as an additional means by which we can try and fulfil our charitable mission. We rely on the help and support of the Society’s Fellows to help us take advantage of the opportunities presented in an increasingly complex heritage environment, and whatever ways our supporters can help us – by joining the Fellowship, donating time by Volunteering or serving on Council, donating money, or advocating for the Society’s services in personal and professional networks – they are all invaluable aids to our work.
So, please use the digital library, please tell us what you want to see, and please tell your friends and colleagues about it!
To help assuage any fears that digital ventures like this might lead us to neglect our physical collections, we also put together a display of treasures from the Society’s holdings for the launch event. This included some of the manuscripts, archives, paintings, and drawings which you can find in the digital library. But the display also featured an arrangement of photographs from the collection of Sir John Turner (1881-1958), documenting his time in India and Iraq between 1899 and 1920. These photographs have just been catalogued and re-packaged by our placement student Laura Morris-Kingham, and we look forward to a forthcoming blog post from Laura highlighting Turner’s collection.
The next event at the Society will take place on Tuesday, 10 April, at 6pm, when we will host the launch of Memory, Identity and the Colonial Encounter in India, a festschrift for Professor Peter Robb, RAS President between 2012 and 2015. The volume’s editors will join in conversation with Professor Robb and other distinguished panellists to discuss various analytical approaches to rethinking relationships between memory and identity during the period of British rule in the subcontinent. We hope you will be able to join us.