Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

17 October 2016

1500 titles of Thai printed books added to the British Library’s electronic catalogue

The Library’s Thai collection contains more than 6000 titles of printed books, pamphlets and grey literature in Thai language, dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Due to a generous gift by Christian missionaries of about 100 books and pamphlets, the earliest period of printing in Thailand, from ca.1840-1890, is well represented, including a copy of the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam (Siam.29), also known as the Bowring Treaty, which was printed by J.H. Chandler at the Washington Press in Bangkok in 1856.

Phra Malai orb99 216
A printed version of Phra Malai, the legend of a Buddhist Saint who travelled to heaven and hell. This third edition in folding book format was printed in 1956 at S. Thammaphakdi Publishers in Bangkok. British Library, ORB.99/216 f.1

Numerous first editions, funeral volumes and government publications were acquired from the National Library of Thailand (formerly Vajiranana Library) in the first decades of the 20th century. From 1973 onwards, the British Library has systematically collected Thai publications on Thai art and culture, history, literature, anthropology, Buddhism, archaeology, law, politics and social issues. Recent acquisitions of contemporary publications are normally made by purchase, but occasionally antiquarian books are also added to the collection to fill gaps.

Caricature of a Thai chief police officer by King Vajiravudh in his book “Phap phrahat” (Bangkok, 1920). British Library, Siam.260, p.19

The earliest shelfmark sequences for Thai books begin with ‘Siam’, followed by a number. Acquisitions between 1986 and 2000 have shelfmarks beginning ‘SEA’, while some rare books have shelfmarks beginning ‘ORB’.

Until recently, Thai printed books and serials acquired before 1986 were only accessible through a card catalogue in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies Reading Room, with author, title and subject sequences. However, in the past few years, efforts have been made to retroconvert card catalogues in Asian languages through internships, temporary cataloguing contracts and crowdsourcing initiatives like Libcrowds. Thanks to a four-month internship for Dr Thanyarat Apiwong in 2015, over 1500 book titles from the Thai card catalogue have now been added to the British Library’s electronic catalogue Explore, increasing the number of Thai book titles searchable electronically to over 5000.

Example of a catalogue card showing basic bibliographic details of a Thai book, in Thai and partially romanised script.

The collection is particularly strong in publications by King Chulalongkorn, King Vajiravudh and Princess Sirindhorn as well as many other important scholarly and popular Thai authors like Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, Prince Damrong, Kukrit Pramoj, Botan, Kulap Saipradit, Chart Korbjitti, Khamsing Srinawk, Pira Sudham etc.  A  very small selection of rare Thai books from the Library’s holdings were fully digitised in collaboration with Northern Illinois University and include works on history, warfare, law, and literature, and are available on the Southeast Asia Digital Library.

Orb30 5539
An early photograph of a Southern Thai Nora dancer in Prince Damrong’s book “Tamra fon ram” on Thai classical dance, first edition printed at Sophon Publishers, Bangkok, 1923. British Library, ORB.30/5539, p.82

Translations of Buddhist, Chinese, Lao, Burmese and Western literary works into Thai language form one small though important part of the Thai collection. These include translations by King Vajiravudh of works by Molière, William Shakespeare, Sax Rohmer, Arthur Moreland and Georges Courteline. Some of these publications are among the finest examples of Thai printing and book binding, often adorned with gold decorations.

Translation of Sax Rohmer’s “Golden scorpion” by King Vajiravudh, under the pseudonym Rammachitti, published ca. 1925 in Bangkok. British Library, Siam.284, front cover

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

10 October 2016

The Archive of Yogyakarta digitised

The ‘Archive of Yogyakarta’ refers to a collection of some four hundred manuscript documents in Javanese dating from 1772 to 1813, originating from the court of Yogyakarta. A highly important source for the political, economic, social, administrative and legal history of central Java in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the archive comprises official reports, letters, accounts and other documents as well as the private papers of Sultan Hamengkubuwana II (r. 1792-1810, 1811-1812, 1826-1828) and his successor Sultan Hamengkubuwana III (r. 1812-1814). Together with many other Javanese manuscripts on literary, historical and religious subjects held in the royal library, the documents were taken during the British assault on the palace of Yogyakarta in June 1812, and subsequently entered the private collections of three senior officials of the British administration in Java (1811-1816): Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Java; Colin Mackenzie, Chief Engineer; and John Crawfurd, then Resident of Yogyakarta. The documents were evidently selected by Crawfurd, whose collection was later acquired by the British Museum in 1842, and is now held in the British Library. Currently bound in four volumes (Add. 12303, Add. 12341, Add. 12342 and Add. 14397), the Archive of Yogyakarta has recently been fully digitised and can be accessed directly through the hyperlinks in this post or on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

Anonymous sketch of the Water Palace (Taman Sari) of Yogyakarta, 1812. Mackenzie Private collection. British Library, MSS Eur. E118, f.29.   noc

The ‘Archive of Yogyakarta’ is the name given to this treasure trove of documents by the historian Peter Carey, who stresses the extraordinary and perhaps unique historical value of the collection: ‘For almost the first time in Javanese, and perhaps even in Southeast Asian, history, pre-colonial studies can be based on the activities of local actors themselves documented by their own records’ (Carey & Hoadley 2000: 435). Under the auspices of the British Academy, the complete Archive has been published in two volumes, with detailed summaries of the contents and full transliterations of the Javanese text for each document. The first volume presents 106 documents on politics and internal court matters (Carey 1980), while the second volume focuses on economic and agrarian affairs (Carey & Hoadley 2000).  But the second volume also draws on the first in presenting all 420 documents as sources for the history of the Yogyakarta administration in the following five categories: 1) governmental decisions, including letters of appointment, royal orders, legal digests, documents on statute law, treaties and judicial decisions; 2) material resources in the form of appanages [i.e. sources of provision for members of the royal house] and military resources of the realm; 3) court correspondence, both incoming and outgoing; 4) accountancy records, showing both credit in the form of taxes, loans and contributions, and debit from allowances and cash outlays; and 5) miscellaneous documents, including those relating to religious affairs. This thematic presentation was achieved with considerable effort, for three of the four volumes were bound by Crawfurd in a completely random order: ‘land grants for royal officials and lists of revenue payments are mixed up with sumptuary laws [i.e. laws to limit extravagant consumption], political correspondence between the Sultan and the Residents and notes on disputes over villages. More intimate items such as allowances for court ladies, petty kraton accounts, payments for pradikan officials, challenges to cockfights, instructions on fasting (amutih, patih geni) and letters of praise with imagery from the wayang are also interspersed indiscriminately throughout the three volumes’ (Carey 1980: 3).

Appanage grant from Sultan Hamengkubuwana II to Bendara Raden Ayu Srenggara, the principal unofficial wife of Sultan Hamengkubuwana I and the mother of Pakualam I, granting her 56 manpower units (cacah) in named villages, 21 Sura A.J. 1721 (18 August 1794) (Carey & Hoadley 2000: 14). British Library, Add. 12342, f. 253r   noc

List of hajis, palace santris [religious scholars], and their followers sent to Mecca in 1806 by Sultan Hamengkubuwana II [4 February 1806], begins: Punika pémut pratélangipun utusan-Dalem ingkang badhé dhateng Mengkah … (Carey 1980: 172-3). British Library, Add. 12341, f. 78r  noc

Letter from Sultan Hamengkubuwana II and the Crown Prince of Yogyakarta to John Crawfurd, 18 Dulkangidah A.J. 1738 (4 Dec 1811), written in Javanese in Pégon (Arabic) script (Carey 1980: 79-81). This is one of a number of letters from the sultan and senior court officials to British officials not from the court library, but which were evidently taken by Crawfurd from the British Residency archives in Yogyakarta to add to his private collection. British Library, Add. 12341, f. 146v  noc

The historical value of this archive is beyond doubt, primarily for - as highlighted by the compilers of the second volume - 'the lack of correspondence between what contemporary European accounts deemed important and what the contents of The Archive of Yogyakarta seems to suggest is vital from a Javanese perspective' (Carey & Hoadley 2000: 4). But the documents are also an exceptionally rich source for the study of formal Javanese diplomatics, to be mined for data on the palaeography, phraseology, nomenclature and internal structure of different types of governmental documents, as well as guiding principles on the use and placement of seals, choice of script (whether the Indic-derived Javanese script, read from left to right, or  Pégon, the adapted form of Arabic script which is read from right to left) and materials (whether imported Dutch or other European rag paper, or dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree).

Octagonal seal of Sultan Hamengkubuwana II, inscribed in the centre in Javanese: Ingkang pratandha Kangjeng Sinuhun Hamengkubuwana Sénapati Ingalaga Ngabdurrahman Sayidin Panatagama Kalipatulah (Carey 1980: 76), 'This is the seal of the exalted majesty who carries the world in his lap, the commander of the army in war, servant of the Most Merciful One, lord of the faith, protector of religion, vicegerent of God' (cf. Carey & Hoadley 2000: 436). The tiny inscription in Arabic script in the border has not yet been read. British Library, Add. 12342, f. 208r (detail)   noc

The four volumes of the Archive of Yogyakarta have been digitised by the British Library as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Libraries and Archives Board of the Special District of Yogyakarta (Badan Perpustakaan and Arsip Daerah Istimewa Yoyakarta, BPADIY), focusing on those Javanese manuscripts in the British Library identified by Carey as originating from Yogyakarta. On a recent visit to Yogyakarta, on 22 September 2016 copies of the digitised images of the Archive of Yogyakarta were presented to His Excellency the Governor of Yogyakarta, H.M. Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwana X (the sultan of Yogyakarta is the only hereditary ruler in Indonesia also accorded a constitutional role, in recognition of the heroic support of Sultan Hamengkubuwana IX for the fledgling Republic of Indonesia during the Indonesian revolution, 1945-1949).

With H.E. the Governor of Yogyakarta, H.M. Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwana X (third from left) and staff of the Libraries and Archives Board (BPADIY) including head of BPADIY Budi Wibowo (second from left), at the 18th-century Kadipaten, former premises of the Crown Prince of Yogyakarta and now the gubernatorial office. Photo by Suhardo, 22 September 2016.

Looking at manuscripts in the Widya Budaya library in the palace of Yogyakarta, with royal librarian K.R.T. Rintaiswara (second left) and staff of the Libraries and Archives Board of Yogyakarta. Photo by A.T. Gallop, 24 September 2016.  noc

After the British sack of the court of Yogyakarta, only three manuscripts were left in the royal library: a copy of the Qur’an (copied in 1797), the Serat Suryaraja (1774), and a copy of Arjuna Wiwaha (1778) (Carey 1980: 13, n. 11). The manuscripts currently held in the Widya Budaya library therefore mostly postdate 1812, and Romo Rinto shows here a volume of archive documents in Javanese dating from the mid-19th century. Photo by A.T. Gallop, 24 September 2016.  noc


Carey, P. B. R. (ed.), The archive of Yogyakarta.  Volume I.  Documents relating to politics and internal court affairs.  Oxford: published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1980 (Oriental Documents; 3).
Carey, Peter and Hoadley, Mason C. (eds.), The archive of Yogyakarta.  Volume II.  Documents relating to economic and agrarian affairs.  Oxford: published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2000. (Oriental Documents; 11).

One other Javanese manuscript from the Yogyakarta palace library now held in the British Library which has been digitised is the beautifully illuminated Serat Jayalengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24), described in another blog post: A Javanese manuscript artist at work.

For a full list of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library which have been digitised, see our Digital Access to Malay and Indonesian manuscripts webpage.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

03 October 2016

What do you think about our digitised Hebrew manuscripts?

We’ve been digitising Hebrew manuscripts and making them available on the Digitised Manuscripts website since 2013, with generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation. With the recent start of Phase 2 of our digitisation project (funded by the National Library of Israel), we took the opportunity to hear your thoughts! We conducted a survey to find out if and how we can improve access to our digitised Hebrew manuscripts, and whether we can be of assistance with digital research using the collection.

We were thrilled to received 107 responses to our survey, mostly from researchers and academics. They come from a wide breadth of organisations in the UK, Europe, Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, and even Uruguay!

Access to data

One key issue covered by our survey was accessibility. Our digitised manuscripts are currently available for viewing through the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. This platform offers search functionality and a smart viewer, with which you can browse images quickly and in very high resolution.

1-Harley MS 5698
Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (British Library Harley MS 5698), viewed on Digitised Manuscripts. Noc

When asked how access can be improved, most respondents wanted to be able to download images, preferably in high resolution. They asked to make the collection free to use, but also to make it clear when one should be aware of usage terms. Being able to view manuscripts’ thumbnails was another suggestion, as well as that our viewer supports IIIF (IIIF – International Image Interoperability Framework – is a set of standards to promote the interoperability and ease of use of digital images, using standard web protocols). People also wanted to be able to share images of digitised manuscripts, for example through e-mail or social media.

Our respondents’ interest was not only in the digitised images, but also in the metadata – our catalogue records. People requested that we make our metadata available for download. In addition, they asked that we update and correct our metadata, or create a framework to crowdsource this task. It was also considered important that the visual appearance of metadata on our viewer is improved. Enhancing search functionality was also a very popular suggestion – people want to find manuscripts of interest more easily. And another prominent request was that we provide a list of all digitised Hebrew manuscripts.

We’re happy to say that we have either addressed or in the process of addressing all of these issues! To start with the latter suggestion, we have made available a list of manuscripts to download as a spreadsheet from the Hebrew Manuscripts website. We have also made our entire set of TEI XML metadata records available for download as a ZIP file (with open license CC-0). We’re also aware that Digitised Manuscripts offers limited search options, and we’re in the process of replacing this viewer with a new one (see below). In the meantime, searching this spreadsheet (e.g. in MS Excel) or filtering the data by column would make it easier to find things and get to manuscripts of interest.

2-TEI Viewer
A catalogue records viewer, created by Alex Mendes, enabling to display and export the project’s metadata

Downloading high quality images was indicated as a key necessity among our users. Following the approval of an internal British Library group (Access and Reuse), we are now able to release our images for free as 300ppi JPEGs. We are in the process of preparing those for British Library Labs website (to be launched in November 2016). This involves assigning the right usage term statement to each manuscript, converting the project’s TIFF files into JPEGs, and compressing these JPEGs – while keeping them in very high quality.

Preparing our collection for free and easy access will also address the suggestion to release our material as open data. Our material will be released as Public Domain, although some of it is technically still in copyright (according to UK copyright law). As this is a very low risk, it will be released for use as Public Domain, but with an appropriate disclaimer. We will make clear which manuscripts fall under which licensing category.

Many suggestions for improvement will be addressed with the transition from the Digitised Manuscripts platform to a new viewer. The new viewer is based on the Universal Viewer technology, an open source project in which the British Library is a partner. The new viewer is replacing legacy viewers for accessing digitised collection items.It will bring together manuscripts, printed books, born digital and sound content. Some of the issues mentioned above will be addressed by this viewer’s functionality:
1.    Features such as Download, Print, Share and Embed.
2.    The Universal Viewer is IIIF compliant.
3.    It enables thumbnails on a side panel, allowing for a quick browse of the manuscript. These can be expanded throughout the whole page (Gallery view), and enlarged or reduced in size as needed.
4.    Better quality viewing experience for digital collection material and metadata.
5.    It will enable the insertion of text transcriptions alongside digitised images of the manuscript represented. The full text would then be searchable.
6.    It will also indicate the relevant license and usage terms for each manuscript.

3-Universal Viewer
A sample item on the Universal Viewer, demonstrating the viewer’s functionality. Noc

Digital Research

Another goal of the survey was to get an idea of the types of digital tools and techniques used by researchers to analyse digitised Hebrew manuscripts.  Most researchers indicated using digital tools for their work, the most popular being image/script comparison tools, annotations and data visualisations, followed by text mining, image analysis tools and crowdsourcing.

It is clear, however, that we can do so much more to facilitate research in this respect. Several people suggested that the project should be more geared toward research and enable a dedicated platform for some or all tools mentioned above. Special emphasis was made on the need for transcriptions, translations and annotations – and a platform to crowdsource them. These features would not only help promote research in general, but also open up our collection to non-Hebrew readers.

Other suggestions related to the creation of relationships with other digital resources such as catalogues and databases, for better discoverability. These included using Linked Open Data (LOD) to express relationships with other resources in other languages, and creating connections to the web catalogue of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (IMHM) and to other databases in Jewish studies. It was also suggested that we create API access to search our digitised collection via other platforms.

We are very grateful for these ideas – they are definitely something for us to explore. Whether we create something from scratch, or leverage on platforms or tools that were developed or are in the process of development – these useful suggestions will be examined in terms of priorities and potential future projects.

It was encouraging to see the level of survey participation and feedback, and hopefully we will keep improving our resources for the benefit of our growing audience!

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow)  Ccownwork