NACIRA conference shines light on resources for Science in Asia

This week saw the annual conference of NACIRA (National Committee for Information Resources on Asia). Titled Science in Asia: Shining a light on resources, the conference was appropriately hosted by the Science Museum, on Tuesday 28 November. NACIRA exists to promote the use and accessibility of the UK’s collections on Asia, and also provides a forum for information professionals working with Asian collections to meet, to exchange ideas, and to keep up-to-date with developments in the field (which includes learning from institutions overseas). Naturally, NACIRA’s annual conference is one of the main ways for it to fulfil these functions. NACIRA includes a number of Regional Library Groups, such as the South Asia Archives and Libraries Group, the China Library Group, and the Middle East Libraries Committee, and the NACIRA conference is an opportunity for representatives of these sub-groups to meet and to compare notes on ongoing work and challenges.

The conference began with Dr Bink Hallum (British Library) discussing “Resources for the study of British Library Arabic Scientific Manuscripts”. Bink highlighted the range of legacy print catalogues that can serve as a starting point or aid for research, but increasingly these need to be complemented by online searches. Obviously, the BL’s online catalogue is an important port of call, but the Qatar Digital Library is becoming an essential resource for research, with more and more manuscripts being added in their entirety.

RAS Arabic 58, al-Shifa, by Abi Ali ul-Husain ibn ‘Abdulla ibn Sina, comprising Part 1. Philosophy. Part 2. Physics and on Euclid, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Music and Metaphysics, with a biography of the author by ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Janzajani

John Moffet (Needham Research Institute) delivered a talk on the history of the Needham Institute and its role as “a hub for resources on the history of Chinese science in the UK”. John provided an invaluable overview of Joseph Needham’s contribution to the study of Chinese civilization, particularly Chinese science, in Britain, as well as Needham’s efforts to promote and improve Sino-British relations. Needham’s private collection of Chinese texts forms the basis of the Institute’s library, and is still an exceptional resource for the study of the history of science and technology in China. John’s talk was a fascinating and inspiring exploration of the ways UK research collections can provide a window into other cultures, and was also an example of how library collections can speak directly to Britain’s own intellectual and social history.

Dr Antonia Moon delivers her paper

After lunch, Dr Antonia Moon (British Library) gave a talk on “Medical and Botanical Science in the India Office Records”. Antonia began by explaining the history of the India Office Records, and how they relate to the British Library’s large collections of books and manuscripts from South Asia, as well as to other archival holdings in India and elsewhere. Antonia discussed the many reasons why the British colonial administration was concerned with botanical and medical sciences in India, and how these interests are reflected in the India Office Records. She also pointed out that this material is often of interest to people carrying out research in the humanities, social sciences, and other subjects as well. The final talk was from Dr Camillo Formigatti (Bodleian Library) who discussed the Bakhshali manuscript from the Bodleian collections, a significant mathematical text written on birch bark which forms part of the ongoing Science Museum exhibition, Illuminating India.

After the papers, conference attendees were able to attend NACIRA’s annual general meeting and to hear reports from each of the sub-groups. As well as learning about a wide range of projects and initiatives, and the heartening progress made in cataloguing and making accessible the rich collections on Asia in UK institutions, the reports also highlighted where some institutions are facing common challenges – such as in the availability and provision of appropriately trained staff.

After the AGM, attendees had a rare opportunity to see some treasures from the Science Museum’s library, and to have a guided tour of the Illuminating India exhibition with Head of Content Matt Kimberley. The Science Museum Library is an important collection comprising around a half-million items (many stored off-site) on the history of science and technology. It was a pleasure to see the Library’s modern, impressive reading room, and to see some of the highlights of its diverse holdings on Asia, displayed specially for the occasion. It was also a delight to see the Illuminating India exhibition, particularly with Matt Kimberley’s stunning interpretation and contextualization of the exhibits highlighting India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics. It was a particular pleasure to see items from the Royal Asiatic Society showcased as part of the exhibition, including a Jambudvipa (Jain map of the universe), and a Panchanga (illustrated Hindu calendar) from the RAS James Tod Collection. The Illuminating India exhibition runs until the end of March 2018: it is free to attend, and information on how to book tickets is available here:

RAS 069.001, Jambudvipa

Our own series of events continues apace, with several events in the next week. Tonight (30 November) at 6.30pm, Augusto Cacopardo talks about his new publication, Pagan Christmas: Winter feasts of the Kalasha of the Hindu Kush. Next Monday (4 December) at 6pm, Dr Mark Condos launches his new book The insecurity state at the RAS, while next Thursday (7 December) at 6.30pm Dr Diana Lange will lecture on Exploring Tibet in Mid-19th Century: The British Library’s Wise Collection. We hope you will be able to join us for these events.