This is guest post by Mark Boersma.

Recently I came across a website of a project on manuscripts from Southeast Asia which is of  potential interest to quite a few philologists and orientalists. The project in question is called Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia, DREAMSEA.  The University of Hamburg cooperates in this project with the Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta State Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta, along with the Hill Museum and Manuscripts Library, which is involved in the project’s digital repository.

Even though I have no experience working with manuscripts from Southeast Asia, I have found DREAMSEA’s site and -especially- its repository so appealing that I decided to share it with our readers. This introduction video about DREAMSEA indicates that it even seeks to be useful for (beginning) students and laypersons, providing information on the multifaceted cultures of writing and texts in Southeast Asia. Here, I would like to introduce some reflections, divided into two categories: suggestions for improvements that may realistically be implemented short-term; and ideas that could lead to further enhancement of the project, especially its repository, but would take (much) more time and effort. 

On the Repository and Its Organization: Some Suggestions for Improvements in the Short Term

The crucial page, offering access to all of DREAMSEA’s digitized manuscripts, is found here. Immediately you notice that the fields for Country, City, Collection each show a drop-down menu, clearly indicating all the present entries. Such picklists are missing for the other entries. 

Image: The drop-down menu for the search criterion “City (Province).” Such drop-down lists are also available for the criteria “Country,” “Collection,” but not for the search fields “Language” and “Script:” If you click on those respective search fields, you will find that only text can be inserted there, without a drop-down list appearing.

This absent drop-down function is particularly missed in the fields of “Languages” and “Subject Matter.” Of course, you could go through the manuscripts at every location and click on each individual manuscript entry, after which the user could note the language or languages found in the given text provided in the table below the panel with all the scanned folios. However, this cumbersome procedure to find out all the languages on offer would not be needed if a drop-down list of all the languages were available at a single click in the field next to “Language.” 

The field “Subject Matter” could likewise be rendered more meaningful by incorporating a drop-down list of selectable terms to find texts on a specific topic. Note however, that the DREAMSEA’s very website has a workaround to counter this shortcoming: This additional section shows the list of all the subjects linked in the manuscripts. Clicking one of these “subject matters” renders links to every relevant manuscript digitally available in the repository. However, the sometimes very general “subject matters” can be  problematic, such as “Literature” and “Letter.” In other cases they seem to be very akin to another subject matter mentioned, cf. “Medicine” (which shows twice in the list!) and “Medicinal treatise,” as well as the pair “Hadith” and “Hadith Science.” Other “subject matters” look very compelling, but unnecessarily obscure, such as a single manuscript tagged “Buddhist and Shivaist knowledge.” The description of this manuscript from the island of Bali notes the Hindu nature of the text. This descriptor leads me to believe that the aforementioned “Buddhist and Shivaist knowledge” may best be changed into “Hinduism,” or, if you will, “Balinese Hinduism.”

Part of the page on the relevant manuscript from Bali. Note that the “Subject Matter” states “Buddhist and Shivaist knowledge,” whereas the “Description of manuscript content” further below mentions the Hindu religion, nothing about Buddhism or Shivaist knowledge.

Other religious belief systems (such as Christianity) and manifestations of folk beliefs, perhaps combined or harmonized with Islam, Buddhism, or any other major religion present in Southeast Asia could merit addition into the “subject matters.” This list may need an overhaul in order to optimize its topical relevance.

DREAMSEA offers a few videos on the digitization project, especially on its YouTube channel (link). Given that some parts of those videos, whether scholarly presentations or recitations or uses of the some texts in the repository, contain relevant information on specific digitized texts, it is certainly worth considering adding links to the (relevant portion of the) videos in the repository’s description of such texts. Pertinent videos that are currently unavailable in English and lacking English subtitles, such as a recorded scholarly discussion conducted in Bahasa Indonesia, would profit from the addition of a succinct summary of the discussion along with a link to the relevant (part of the) video.

Ideas for the Long-Term

As DREAMSEA’s main site states that its whole corpus of digitized manuscripts contains 27 languages in 18 different scripts, this linguistic diversity should be reflected in some way in at least one part of the project or as some sort of follow-up. Since some of these languages and writing systems likely remain arcane to a considerable number of scholars, an overview of the lesser-known languages, their grammatical features, and writing systems would be of added value. (By “lesser-known” I would suggest any language that is not as relatively well-known as Pali.) The additional information could be presented by way of another repository, that of languages and scripts, as well as some bibliographic details on scholarly and educational works for further linguistic information. If some of such works happen to be open access, then even direct links to those publications could be incorporated in said bibliography.

The final suggestion that I would like to share is self-evident in light of the broad geographical area which DREAMSEA aspires to encompass. While some islands of Indonesia appear to be well-represented, as manuscripts from there have been included in its repository, there are but a few manuscripts from Laos, and Thailand. Perhaps some monastic libraries and owners of manuscripts would like to cooperate by allowing their written materials to be made digitally available for a worldwide public through DREAMSEA. The project could live up to its commitments concerning the preservation and dissemination of writing cultures throughout Southeast Asia by making further efforts to digitize more material from Laos and Thailand, and even in other Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Malaysia, etc., whose first set of manuscripts are still waiting to be scanned and digitally published for the project. 

It may  be worthwhile for some involved in the project to explore possibilities with auctioneers, mainly those based in Western Europe, to see whether Southeast Asian manuscripts auctioned or (just) sold could be digitized for the project. Objects such as palm-leaf manuscripts or lontars are often found on the European market, and since neither the auctioneers nor the buyers are usually institutions that are expected to (be able to) digitize such manuscripts themselves, DREAMSEA’s involvement for preservation and rendering such documents (or at least digital versions thereof) publicly available could fit in its main mission. All these further drives of digitization will take much time and a lot of effort by those involved, including, I suspect, new local contacts from other countries and provinces within Southeast Asia who can physically access the texts not yet included in the current digital repository. This should take place, if the project is to live up to its goals it has set for itself.

With this short article I hope to have evoked some new interest in DREAMSEA, both in terms of what it currently is, and what it could potentially become.

Featured image credit: David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).

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