Interviewing Dr. Naomi Appleton about Jātaka Stories

This is a guest post by Udita Das.

Jātaka Stories is a free online repository of jātaka tales. Jātakas are any story about the previous lives of the recent Buddha irrespective of the story labeling itself as a jātaka. The database forms an indispensable resource for a diverse audience, from those interested in Buddhist narratives to scholars and students of Buddhist Studies. In this piece, I interview Dr. Naomi Appleton, University of Edinburgh, who oversees the database.

Das: Could you please provide me with a brief description of your Jātaka Stories?

Appleton: It is a free online searchable database of jātakas in Indian texts and art. A later phase (currently under development) will enable us to expand the resource to include jātaka literature and art from other parts of Asia. Visitors can browse stories by textual collection or artistic site, or explore clusters of connected stories that cross between texts and visual depictions. Each story entry has full text and translation (where available) as well as data such as characters and themes, which allows us to see connections between stories, and to search for stories relating to a particular point of interest.

Das: Who do you envision using the Jātaka Stories? That is, who is the intended audience?

Appleton: Doubtless the most regular user is me! The resource is a tool for my own research, and also helps me to answer queries that people send me about stories and images. More broadly, the intended audience is other scholars, students, storytellers, art historians, and Buddhists – really anyone with an interest in Buddhist narrative.

Das: How did you come up with the idea for the Jātaka Stories? What’s the story behind it?

Appleton: The database was first conceived in 2010 in Bangkok, during a conference on Buddhist narrative, attended by art historians and textual scholars. I continued to develop the idea in conversation with a colleague studying Thai jatakas – Dr. Arthid Sheravanichkul of Chulalongkorn University –over the years, but only with a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2017 was it suddenly possible to bring the idea to life. The details evolved a little during the development phase, in collaboration with the project researcher Dr. Chris Clark, and with input from a team of advisors, who were all potential users of the resource.

Das: What are your plans for the future of the Jātaka Stories? Are others working on it with you? Do you intend to expand or change it?

Appleton: There are a number of glitches in the search functionality that need resolving, and we need to expand the structure to make it possible to include materials in Chinese and Tibetan that are currently being prepared. Unfortunately, the developer working on the project moved post, and there isn’t currently any resource at my university to implement the second phase. Meanwhile, the funding has also run out, and I am busy with other things. I am confident that it will be possible to move forward in due course, but it is certainly having a pause just now.

Das: Do you see the Jātaka Stories as part of the larger digital humanities?

Appleton: Yes and no. We tried to ensure that the principles of the site enable it to be long-lived, using a standard relational database and largely open-source software for the user interface. On the other hand, we decided not to adopt any of the frameworks being developed in the field of digital humanities. As such, the database is certainly part of the digital humanities push towards open access research resources but doesn’t tie up with any specific movement.

Das: What advice do you have for other scholars who want to create a database, or who want to somehow make information and scholarship digitally available?

Appleton: My main piece of advice for a database would be to think through the database structure carefully and early on, with someone who really understands your data and the implications for future expansion of the resource. Getting the framework right is so important to ensuring the longevity and usability of the resource. We didn’t quite manage it! But the other piece of advice I would give is not to be hampered by perfectionism – if you have some data to share that you think would help people, find a way to do it, and don’t worry if it’s perfect or not. It all helps.

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