THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

26 October 2016

Fragments of Sikkim

Pema Abrahams' blog describes her recently awarded project (EAP880) that seeks to preserve, document, digitise, and make accessible a collection of approximately 100,000 documents from the Sikkim Palace Archives, 1875 – 1975.

Sikkim is a landlocked state of India, hidden amongst the deep folds of the Himalaya, tucked between Nepal, Tibet, West Bengal, and Bhutan.

Sikkim_area_map_svgSikkim area map: Wikimedia Foundation (www.wikimedia.org)  CC BY 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons

A former Buddhist kingdom ruled for over 300 years by the Namgyal dynasty of ‘Chogyals’ (or dharma rajas – spiritual and temporal monarchs). Sikkim was often called the ‘Switzerland of the East’ and has been best known for its unique Buddhist traditions, its agricultural produce, for providing the British Empire with an access route to Tibet, and for the magnificent beauty of its natural landscape, including Mt. Khangchendzonga, the world’s third highest peak.

Khanchendzonga sunrise (2)Khanchendzonga at sunrise: copyright Pema Abrahams

In fact, just earlier this year we took much pride in 25% of the state being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing India’s first mixed category site—for the area’s natural significance which includes a vertical sweep of over seven kilometers within an area of only 178,400 hectares, as well as its cultural significance for the mythological stories and the indigenous practices that have been, and continue to be, integrated with these mountains, caves, lakes, and rivers, many of which we consider sacred.

Dzongri west Sikkim (2)Dzongri west Sikkim: copyright Pema Abrahams

However, nowadays discussions, whether academic or popular, concerning historical aspects of Sikkim suffer from a paucity of sources, exacerbated by the sensitive political situation of Sikkim after its annexation by India in 1975. As a result its in-depth study is restricted, a balanced understanding of the history of this region is impossible, no Sikkim history is taught in any local school, and not a single museum exists in the state.

For a population of over 600,000 Sikkimese who speak over 10 distinct languages amongst them, the consequences that this historical vacuum leaves - which denies our communities a sense of historical identity and access to their roots, as well as the facility of cultural preservation in a rapidly homogenising India - can often be painful to acknowledge, and does our current generation an immense disservice.

Photo No 3 StorageStorage of part of the collection

This collection which numbers approximately 100,000 documents will provide an overview of, and a rare insight into, late 19th and 20th century Sikkim, introducing the characters and events that shaped the development of the kingdom and its eventual integration into India. Its contents are powerful, never-before-seen documents, which breathe life into a series of engaging stories about the people, the land, and its complex history at the crosswords of British India and Tibetan Buddhism. They contain a unique and priceless record of the region that will be of interest to scholars of both this Himalayan state and the wider region of South and Central Asia, and they harbour the potential to guide Sikkimese, visitors, and scholars alike in discovering the richness of this forgotten kingdom, and in giving voice to the untold histories of one of India's youngest states. 

Hoping to contribute to the growing archive of historical research and cultural revitalization in India, this project was born out of a thirst for knowledge and exists as an exercise of scholarship and archive, of discourse and development. Our goal is to make this information accessible and engaging to audiences both international and domestic. But at the heart of this project is our aspiration that the information unearthed in this collection will be of benefit to our Sikkimese youth who will bear the responsibility for the direction of our collective relationships with our communities and our cultures, who have precious few historical references on which to fall back on.

_DSC1376The EAP880 team with Dr Alex McKay, Prakash Ram and Sundar Ganesan (R-L)

At our core are a team of five, young Sikkimese who have a genuine interest in the material, and a strong commitment to the values of the project. In the five weeks since the start of our twelve-month project, we’ve created a database with rough details of the 800+ folders in our collection and have labelled, for ease of our own sorting and finding the filing cabinets in which the collection has been held, untouched, for much of the past 40 years. We’ve enjoyed a visit by our Academic Advisor, Dr Alex McKay, who in addition to creating an exhaustive list of categories and sub-categories for the collection, gave a series of talks sharing some of his expertise with our young team to help us put the collection into historical context and understand its full value.

2016-10-04 16.24.25 copyDr Alex McKay overseeing work on the archive

We’ve also hosted Sundar Ganesan (Director) and Prakash Ram (Assistant Director) from The Roja Muthiah Research Library (Chennai) to train our team in archival methodology, documentation of collections, and digitisation techniques. It was an enlightening week for us all; an experience for which we are all very grateful, and a relationship we feel very fortunate to have forged and hope to continue throughout our own development process.

_DSC1358Pema Abrahams with Sundar Ganesan (R) and Prakash Ram (C)

_DSC1356Discussing the project with Prakash Ram

13 October 2016

New collections online - September 2016

Over the past month we have made four new projects available to view through our website. We have also added two new projects to BL Sounds. There are now eight EAP funded projects on Sounds in total, with over 25,000 tracks to listen to. This includes a wide variety of genres of music from Micronesia (EAP115) and Guinea ( EAP187, EAP327, EAP608); folk and traditional songs and talks from the Uralic speaking regions of Russia (EAP347); Indian classical music (EAP190; EAP468); and musical pieces and poetry from Iran (EAP088).

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EAP347 - Vanishing voices from the Uralic world: sound recordings for archives in Russia (in particular Udmurtia), Estonia, Finland and Hungary

The EAP347 project was funded to help preserve sound recordings from the Uralic speaking world that were collected at the Udmurt Institute for History, Language and Literature, Izhevsk, Russia. Most of the recordings are from the Udmurt Republic and the surrounding regions of the Russian Federation, including the Republic of Tatarstan, Kirov Oblast, Republic of Bashkortostan, and Perm Krai. These recordings can be browsed through their region, language, subject, title and recording date. They include many recordings of traditional songs and oral history, featuring subjects such as ‘army recruitment’, ‘drinking songs’, ‘guest songs’, ‘fairy tales’, and ‘wedding’. There are 6118 recordings in total available to listen to here

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EAP704/1/1: Mäshafä salot - Book of Prayer [1495-1505]

EAP704: The Melvin Seiden Award: Digitisation of the monastic archives of Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay (Shire region, Tigray Province, Ethiopia)

This project aimed to secure and digitise two collections of Ethiopian manuscripts kept in remote monasteries located in the Shire region of the Province of Tigray: Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay. These manuscripts are crucial for the study of Ethiopian and Eastern Christian monasticism and the history of Ethiopia, particularly for the northern regions which are now a part of Eritrea and difficult for researchers to access. They also document the history of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church and bring to light the new and little known works of Christian and Ethiopian Church literature. The digitised material is a great resource for researchers studying the history of manuscript and Ethiopian art history in the context of Christian, Oriental and Byzantine artistic traditions. The project was able to fully digitise the two collections. 61 manuscripts were digitised from Marawe Krestos and a further 45 belonging to Däbrä Abbay. A total of 14,602 folios, covers and edges were digitised. The material dates from the 14th century to the 20th century.

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EAP704/1/5: "Mäshafä kufale, Isayeyas - Book of Jubilees, Book of Isaiah [1360-1399]

 EAP115 - Collection and digitisation of old music in pre-literate Micronesian society

The EAP115 project aimed to collect and digitise music and recorded chants from around the Micronesia region. It achieved this by gathering music from government radio stations in Majuro, Marshall Islands; Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap, Federated States of Micronesia; and Koror, Palau, as well as from private collections and church sources in Chuuk, including the Liebenzell Mission and the Catholic Church media studio. The collection features a wide variety of musical styles and charts the evolution of music in the region, with recordings ranging from religious chants and choirs, to more modern rock and reggae songs. All 7069 recordings are available to listen to freely from around the world on BL Sounds. So far the most shared track is the aptly named ‘A happy celebration song’, performed by girls from Woleai, Yap State. You can listen to the track here and explore from there.

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EAP636/5/43: Historia da Misericordia de Goa [1912]

 EAP636 - Creating a digital archive of Indian Christian manuscripts

Portuguese rule in Goa bequeathed a vibrant Catholic community and a rich legacy of texts in Portuguese and Indian vernacular languages. These texts are held in a number of different State, Church, private institutional and family collections and have often been forgotten or lost in collections with no catalogues, remaining invisible to scholars and those interested in the history of Christianity in the area. Many of these texts, dating back to the sixteenth century, were in danger of being lost altogether due to uncertain archival conditions and poor preservation. The aim of this project therefore was to locate, identify and digitise many of these Christian manuscripts located in the region of Konkan. By creating a centralised digital archive of these texts the project has been able to provide a significant resource for scholars and community members interested in the history of Goa, particularly its Catholic communities.

The project was able to digitise the collections of several local families as well as those of institutions in the region. This included digitisation of the manuscript collection, as well as significant books, from the Seminary of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier in Pilar, relating to the order and to the Church in Goa. The Jesuit-run Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr (TSKK) research, educational and cultural centre also agreed to let its collection of manuscripts be digitised. This included its collection of microfilms of early Marāṭhi and Kōṅkaṇī manuscripts.

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EAP636/4/39: Historia dos Animais e Arvores do Maranhao [1967]

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 EAP675/23/1: "Turks in Kardzhali region, South Bulgaria. Akhmed Yusmenov collection [1950s-1980s]"

 EAP675 - Documentation of the pre-industrial elements in Bulgarian minorities' culture during the 20th century - phase II

This project was focused on the discovery, analysis and digitisation of 20th century photographs depicting elements of Bulgarian minorities’ culture. The project was targeted at different ethnic and religious communities, such as Old Believers, Turks, Armenians, Karakachans, and Vlachs. This major project continued the work carried out in the earlier EAP500 pilot project, which focused mainly on a few small collections of Pomaks, Turkish, Karakchan and Tatar images.

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EAP675/10/1: Armenians from different Balkan regions - Haskovo city. Philip Derandonyan's collection [1910s-1960s]

Documentary material from minority groups in Bulgaria is scantily represented or missing from Bulgarian archives. The reason for this is rooted mostly in the mono-centred state policy, focused for a long period solely on the Bulgarian ethnic tradition and culture, as well as in the policy of the Bulgarian state before 1989 aimed at forced assimilation of minorities. This is the reason for the gradual disappearance or even purposeful destruction of pictures and photographic collections of the different minorities in the country, particularly of the Muslim minority during the so called “Revival process” in Bulgaria in the 1960s-1980s. The policy of the Bulgarian state for a forced assimilation of the Muslims was accompanied with the destruction of all documents – official, personal and family – that were testament to their minority identity. Through the research carried out both in this project and EAP500, it has been found that such documents had often been hidden and saved, although often in inappropriate conditions. The project succeeded in discovering and safeguarding these images, and helped create an understanding amongst these groups as to the importance of the project and the need for preservation of these endangered archival documents. Since completion of the project the team has continued to be notified of newly discovered material with families opening up their own collections for study and digitisation.


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EAP675/22/1: Karakachans in Sliven region [1930s-1980s]

 EAP683 - Rāmamālā Library manuscript project

This project set out to create an inventory of 6000 primarily Sanskrit, Prakrit and Bengali manuscripts held in the Rāmamālā Trust compound in Comilla, Bangladesh, and to digitise a sample of them. Established in 1935 by Maheśacandra Bhaṭṭācārya and currently run by the Mahesh Charitable Trust, the collection was meant to promote education and preserve Bengali culture. It was also intended as a resource for preserving and promoting Hinduism within a dominant Muslim environment on the eve of British colonialism. Much of the library is thus dedicated to Sanskrit scientific and legal literature. Yet it also contains unique texts in a variety of other Sanskrit genres and includes many regional works in Bengali (eg, a rare version of the Mahābhārata), together with some works in Prakrit. Consequently, it preserves a snapshot of the literary and religious culture of the region in pre-colonial and colonial times, encompassing not just Hindu works but also works related to a distinctive, regional variety of Islam (Satyapīr). The collection has been physically displaced twice. First during the upheavals in 1947 when India and Pakistan were partitioned, and then again in 1971 when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. Early attempts to itemise, catalogue, and identify manuscripts have been largely lost; all that remains by means of a catalogue is a general overview of the collection and archives of a few handwritten notes. The manuscripts themselves suffer from physical neglect and dilapidation. They are housed in rooms with glassless windows and leaky roofs, exposed to the elements, and open to vermin and potential theft. Since Bangladeshi independence, there have been limited efforts to ameliorate the disarray of manuscripts, including some microfilming in the 1980s, and classification of the manuscripts’ general categories. Despite the promise of these preliminary efforts, the full scope of the collection remained unknown.

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EAP683/1/1/81: Mahābhārata - Sana 1197, Phālguna 15, [February 27, 1791] (f. 617v)

The project found that there were far more manuscripts in the collection than initially thought, with an estimated 9000 in total. This discovery added a significant strain on resources for creating the inventory and managing their assessment, however, the team were able to complete their work, converting handwritten lists into spreadsheets, and make the inventory readily available to scholars worldwide. The project was also able to digitise a sample of 85 manuscripts ranging from 1 folio up to 620 folios in length dating from the mid-17th century up until the early 20th century. The project also carried out preservation work on many of the endangered manuscripts and moved them to less exposed locations away from vermin and water leaks.

EAP683_1_1_65-rlms5566_003_LEAP683/1/1/65: Praśnacakra

04 October 2016

Impressions from Myanmar

Lukas Birk, who is currently in Myanmar digitising photographs as part of EAP898, sent this report back to London to let us know how he's getting on. It looks a fascinating project and we can't wait until we receive the digitised material and are able to put it online.

Lukas Birk YangonLukas digitising negatives at MARCA, Yangon.

The aim of this pilot project was to locate negatives taken by local Burmese photographers in Yangon, Mandalay and Mawlamyine and to digitise an archive that had been previously located. These negatives are the only coherent records of Burmese documenting Burmese throughout the decades of military oppression, as well as the brief period after WWII and independence. These records have become increasingly rare; they have been either destroyed by humidity and rain or thrown away due to redundancy after digital photography was introduced.

Eaten negsNegatives destroyed by termites at Bellay Photo Studio, Yangon

One archive, at Bellay Photo Studio in Yangon, had already been identified on a previous scouting trip and the owner thankfully agreed to the digitisation of some of the negatives that were taken by his father starting in 1963, only one year after general Ne Win’s coup d’état. The images taken in the studio capture life during the so-called ‘lost decades’ and present a unique insight into this time period, as there are no archives in Myanmar or abroad that hold a comprehensive collection of images from those decades. Bellay Photo Studio is run by an ethnically Chinese family and many of the clients were Chinese-Burmese as well. A community that suffered greatly during Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism; they were persecuted, their properties were nationalized, and finally a ban on Chinese-language education was issued, which forced a major exodus of Sino-Burmese to other countries. The negatives at the studio used to be stored in two large wooden cabinets which were destroyed by termites and humidity along with more than 50% of the negatives. The loose negatives, which had been kept in envelopes, have been stored in plastic bags since 2012. Through the digitisation process, the negatives were put in protective paper sleeves and sorted by topic. 4464 negatives with over 6000 images were digitised. They were taken from 1963 to 1982 with most of the images dating from the 1970s.

Bellay1

Bellay2Negatives digitised at Bellay Photo Studio, Yangon

Another small but important archive of 134 negatives, including glass plates, was archived on the outskirts of Yangon. The grandson of the famed Asia Studio proprietor allowed us to digitise a small section of his collection. The negatives and plates are stored in a wooden box without any kind of protection. The images include press photography capturing Aung San who is considered as the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar and a hero for his struggle for independence. He is also the father of politician and current Minister of Foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi. The images were taken in the 1940s; Aung San was assassinated in 1947. The Asia Studio archive holds many more valuable images that are at risk due to the storage environment.

During these three months of research activities, I conducted trips to Mandalay in the central region as well as Mawlamyine in Mon State in the South of the county. These trips resulted in contacts to photo studios that still hold negatives from the last 5 decades. Mandalay, with its borders to the Shan state, is especially interesting, as the clientele of the photo studio was more ethnically diverse, compared with that in the south. Hopefully these negatives can be archived in the future. The quantity of negatives is very difficult to estimate as I have only seen piles kept in bags, unprotected in attics and cabinets.

The digitised negatives form a very important record from after Myanmar’s independence and will allow not only researchers in the West but also Burmese to access the unique photographic culture of their past that documented everyday life and how Burmese citizens wanted to be portrayed. This is especially true for the images from Bellay Photo Studio, as they represent various communities of Yangon in the late 1960s and 70s.

Bellay3Another digitised negative from Bellay Photo Studio, Yangon