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Conserving fragile history through digital preservation

October 27, 2021

The Southeast Asia Digital Library (SEADL), a project of the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia (CORMOSEA) that began with a federal grant in 2005, is a virtual Southeast Asia treasure trove hosted by NIU Libraries. A digital archive of textual, still image, sound and video resources, SEADL is a free resource for anyone studying or just interested in the region.

Hao Phan at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

For the past eight years, Hao Phan, curator of the Donn V. Hart Southeast Asia Collection, has been laser-focused on finding and digitally preserving rare manuscripts of the Cham people in Vietnam. Phan received an initial grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme in 2013 to survey Cham materials in Vietnam and set up logistics for eventually digitizing them. After that, Phan received two grants in 2014 and 2017 to digitize the materials.

Phan has made several trips to Vietnam to shepherd the project from initial fieldwork to librarian training. The 2014 grant (about $66,000) and the 2017 grant (about $65,000) allowed Phan to set up a partnership with University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. In all, the project has digitized 977 manuscripts for an archive totaling 57,826 pages/folios.

The Cham people, who currently number about 179,000 in Vietnam, are a historically important minority group from Central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta region. The materials collected are fragile manuscripts, including some palm-leaf pages, still used as religious materials in many Cham villages. The digitization teams included scholars and students from the University of Social Sciences and Humanities who went to villages located in Central Vietnam to photograph the manuscripts held by their original owners and communities. Besides digitizing the materials, the project team also assisted manuscript owners in preserving the materials by providing archival boxes and basic preservation knowledge to prevent damage in the future.

A mobile team from the University of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City sets up to photograph Cham materials at a village in Central Vietnam in 2014.

Work to digitize the images began after the teams returned to Ho Chi Minh City. “Before the digitization started in 2014, I went to Vietnam with an archivist from NIU Libraries to run a three-day workshop for about fifty local librarians on the subject of manuscripts preservation, and also to train the team that would work on the manuscripts,” Phan said.

The resulting images are now fully accessible on the SEADL site. “These documents contain valuable evidence of the Cham writing system, customs, linguistics and history,” Phan said. “By digitizing the manuscripts, the project provides scholars worldwide online access to primary research materials for Cham Studies, and helps preserve an important cultural heritage of Cham people.”

Meanwhile work on expanding SEADL’s digital holdings continues. NIU Libraries recently received a $610,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for the Southeast Asia Digital Library for four years, 2019 to 2023. The grant is part of $1.2 million Luce grant awarded to CORMOSEA. Funds were used to hire a web developer and to add new content to the digital library, which was established in 2005.