According to their website, this digital library exists to “provide educators and their students…with a wide variety of materials published or otherwise produced in Southeast Asia.” This digital humanities source provides coverage for eleven distinct countries as well as a category for the region. This project received its start from a grant through the US Department of Education’s Technological Innovation and Cooperation for Foreign Information Access (TICFIA) program in 2005. This four year grant, while administered by the Northeastern Illinois University Libraries, is the work of a consortium of institutions represented by librarians from the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia (CRMOSEA) as well as other faculty from participating institutions. The website details the various content partners.
The 2005 project included eight major projects, including upgrading an online bibliographic index, creating an archive of historical photographs, digitizing various manuscripts, creating video archives, and converting and digitizing images and textual materials. In 2009, the Southeast Asia Digital Library received additional funding from TICFIA to support nine additional initiatives including the digitization of Buddhist murals and cloth paintings, the digitization of art objects and criticism, creation of video archives of interviews with surviving victims of the Khmer Rouge, and the digitization of various works from the National University of Malaysia. Overall, this project has served to create a resource accessible to all by creating a network of resources through collaboration between institutions and countries.
Due to the extensive nature of this project, this review will focus on the projects related to one specific country – Myanmar (Burma). In the Myanmar/Burma projects section there are five projects listed. These are: 1) Mandalay Marionettes Theater Puppet Show, 2) Early Imprints from Southeast Asia, 3) Pa’O Religious and Literary Manuscripts, 4) The Northern Illinois University Digital Collection, and 5) Virtual Southeast Asia. Of these projects, three are of the more traditional style, meaning that they are simple digitizations of manuscripts, books, and photographs. Two of these – Early Imprints from Southeast Asia, and Pa’O Religious and Literary Manuscripts are in conjunction with the British Library. Early imprints from Southeast Asia has little information about the project besides the fact that the British Library holds unique collections form these early imprints, and that an agreement was signed in 2009 regarding digitizing parts of this collection. This collection has seven books, all written in the language of Malay. No translations are included.
The Pa’O Religious and Literary Manuscripts project provides much more detail about the project itself – including some technical information such as who/what libraries were involved. This project includes 71 manuscripts in various languages including Burmese, Pa’O, and Pali. No translations are included.
The Northern Illinois University Digital Collection includes digitizations of four books either in English or Burmese and English, coming from the Burmese manuscripts from the Donn V. Hart Collection project. There are also 83 manuscripts, most in Northeastern Thai language, although a few are in Burmese and Pali. These manuscripts come from two projects – the Palm-leaf manuscripts of Thailand, and the Burmese manuscripts from the Donn V. Hart Collection. The photograph collection includes 76 photographs from the Digital Archive of Buddhist Mural and Cloth Paintings in Thailand project. These photographs include brief descriptions, keywords, and subject headings.
The two projects under the Myanmar (Burma) heading that most fit the idea of “Digital Humanities” are the remaining two – Virtual Southeast Asia and Mandalay Marionettes Theater Puppet Show. These projects embrace the ideas of digital humanities. Neither project would be available without more specialized methods of technology. The Virtual Southeast Asia project includes not only digitized photographs but also a google map viewer that allows one to view the library holdings on the macro level to see where images were crated, but also allows one to move to the micro level to view individual images of sites on the map. This provides a unique method of indexing/finding images that text does not provide. This is an example of how digital technologies can enhance a collection of digitized images giving a unique way to search.
The final Myanmar/Burma project is one that lends itself to digital technologies in a way that none of the other projects do. It is a collection of videos dealing with the Burmese tradition of Marionettes. The use of puppetry has been a part of Burmese culture for over 500 years. There is much written about Marionette Theater, but the written word can only present a small glimpse into this cultural tradition. This type of cultural expression lends itself best to video, which is how this project is presented. There are eleven videos, including an introduction and overview to Burmese Marionettes. This project embraces the use of technology to preserve and explain culture in a way that a non-visual medium does not. It goes beyond the scanning of a photo and shows “life action”, the way theater should be seen. Each video includes a brief description of what is contained in that recording. While there are other videos of the Burmese Marionettes available on YouTube, the videos in the Southeast Asia Digital Library are more likely to remain available as they are part of a grant funded project. The videos describe how the Marionettes are used and what they represent. They are not a complete presentation of a Marionette show. The narration is in English.
Overall, the Southeast Asia Digital Library is an excellent example of various digital humanities techniques and how they can provide access and enhance the learning experiences of those seeking this knowledge. This author would appreciate English translations of various documents, but has no knowledge of whether this will ever be available. The digital medium could provide a platform for such enhancements to exist, but for now, the fact that the manuscripts, books, and photographs are preserved is an excellent starting point.