SEALG Annual Meeting 2022, Paris

SEALG Annual Meeting and Panel at the EuroSEAS Conference, Paris 2022

The SEALG Annual Meeting 2022 took place in Paris in collaboration with the 12th EuroSEAS conference, 28 June to 1 July 2022. On this occasion, our group organised a conference panel with the title Southeast Asia Libraries between Open Science, heritage collections and ethical standards of custodianship, which was held on 1 July as part of the EuroSEAS Conference. The Annual General Meeting took place on the same day, following the panel presentations, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), on the new Campus Condorcet, Paris-Aubervilliers.

The program on 1 July started with the SEALG panel which was chaired by Marije Plomp (Leiden University Libraries) and Jana Igunma (British Library). The theme of the panel was inspired by the fact that the foundations of European libraries holding Southeast Asian heritage collections are rooted mainly in the colonial enterprise. Both the collections and the accumulated knowledge about them bear the stamp of the values and beliefs of the European, nineteenth and early twentieth century collectors and scholars, whose assignments were inextricably bound up with the mission of the colonial state. Post-colonial voices from both academia and the broader society have exposed how some of these values have continued to influence the way European libraries manage, describe and present heritage material. As a result, some of these institutions have begun to critically investigate the make-up and provenance of their colonial collections, as well as the manner in which the collections are being managed. These endeavors have given rise foremost to policies directed at bridging the physical distance between heritage collections and the various stakeholders in Southeast Asia. Most libraries have begun taking measures to facilitate access to the collections and academic output through, for example, digitisation and digital collections, Open Access institutional repositories, research scholarships and facilities, and online catalogue tutorials, seminars and Open Access e-publications promoting the collections.

The panel explored these and other practices that can be taken up by libraries aimed at reducing inequalities related to access to heritage collections and knowledge production, next to other topics related to ethical custodianship. Topics for discussion included aspects of supporting Open Science and Open Access; opening up the collections for everyone, not just academia; providing free access to primary and secondary sources, independently from language/script, place of publication, peer-review, and format of publication; improving discoverability of material in non-European languages; critical re-evaluation of the language, scripts and standards used for cataloguing; heritage collection crowd sourcing projects; (re)discovery of collections; provenance research and acquisition transparency in the context of data protection and privacy legislation; optimization of the digitization process and projects; ethical issues arising from digitisation.

During two sessions, which were attended not only by librarians but also scholars and researchers, six papers were presented.

The first session was opened by Marije Plomp (Asian Library, Leiden University Libraries) with her presentation on “Bridging the gap: Managing colonial heritage collections, best practices and opportunities at the Asian Library”. With the transfer of the KIT and KITLV collections related to the former Dutch East Indies/Indonesia to Leiden University Libraries in 2013-14, the library’s Indonesia collection became the second largest in the world. A notable part consists of heritage material that was collected during the colonial period. In the last five years in particular, post-colonial voices from both academia and the broader society have called upon institutions holding colonial collections to critically assess their collections and the manner in which they manage them. Leiden University Libraries reacted with measures directed at bridging the physical gap between heritage collections and the various stakeholders in Indonesia. Marije discussed these measures in her presentation, as well as other actions directed more generally at accommodating Indonesian user groups and stakeholders in the library. Besides this, she looked into the best practices of other institutions that could perhaps be implemented at Leiden University Libraries.

The second presenter was Awang Azman Awang Pawi from the Academy of Malay Studies, University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur, with his paper “From Malay to Malaysiana: Collection between Access and Preservation”. Since the establishment of University of Malaya (UML) of Kuala Lumpur’s campus in 1959, UML has been developing a collection of publications known as Malaysiana, which are technically defined as material about Malaysia published locally or overseas. The nucleus of the collection itself was inherited from a British colonial who initiated the field of Malay Studies at the UML in Singapore 1953. UML possesses a unique Malaysiana collection with research potential, however, in general the information about it is still superficial. Awang Azman Awang Pawi discussed the accessibility of the Malaysiana collection, as well as the preservation of the collection in the context of the Open Science concept. UML has started several digital initiatives to improve access to the collection for its users, alongside the library’s obligation to preserve this heritage collection. There is also a need for metadata and information enhancements of the materials in the collection to promote research and to encourage researchers from around the world to use this unique source.

The next speaker was Taufiq Hanafi, a researcher at the Royal Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) and the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Leiden University, with his presentation “The Irony of Abundance: Open Science, Copious Resources, and yet Low Research Output”. According to recent research, with relatively low per-capita GDP, underdeveloped electronic text markets, and rapidly growing student population, Indonesia belongs to top users and largest downloaders of shadow libraries. It ranks second in the use of Library Genesis via the B mirror – after Russia – and becomes a major traffic source for data transactions. In addition, other channels for Open Science and data dissemination, such as the official mailing list group for Indonesia’s largest scholarship program LPDP and accompanying social media accounts, have a strong archival function and consistently address the lack of access to digital copies. In this regard, despite the seemingly-illegal nature of this mode of sharing, to date, Indonesia does not only have the ability to access knowledge but also to collect or even hoard. Nonetheless, Indonesia accounted for only 0.65% of academic publications in the ASEAN region and just over 0.2% of global publications, indicative of narrow engagement in science and a weak knowledge sector of the country. Taufiq Hanafi emphasized that his paper did not aim at negating the noble aim of libraries in the European setting at reducing inequalities related to access and opening up their collections for everyone, but rather questioned what can be done to address the issue of insularity in knowledge production.

After a lively discussion of the first three presentations, the second session of this panel was opened by Jotika Khur-Yearn, SOAS Library, London, with his talk on “Digital Collections of Shan Manuscripts: Access, Discovery and Evaluation”. His paper discussed the digital collections of Shan manuscripts that have been made available for Open Access through digitisation projects with the support of generous funding from various organisations and institutions in the last few years. Through both Jotika Khur-Yearn’s participation in some of the digitisation projects and his own research interest in the Shan manuscript literature, these digital collections of Shan manuscripts have become treasure troves for exploration and discovery of rare literary material and information resources on various areas in the fields of humanities and social sciences as he illustrated with some examples in his talk. In addition to the digital collections of Shan manuscripts, he was also involved in a few projects to catalogue Shan manuscripts, and as a result he became aware of many more collections of Shan manuscripts that are still awaiting digitisation and preservation.

Jana Igunma from the British Library, London, followed next with her presentation on “The Thai tradition of manuscript copying and related curatorial challenges”. Until the introduction of printing technology in Thailand (then Siam) in the 1830s, the tradition and art of manuscript copying was one of the two main methods to preserve texts, the other being oral transmission by way of memorising texts. While some scribes and artists aimed to perfect their copying skills to produce luxurious manuscripts for the royal family, others explored ways to integrate their individual creativity and innovation with the process of copying, and yet others worked mainly for patrons who ordered custom-made manuscript copies for Buddhist ceremonies, rites of passage or personal use. For the curator or librarian working with Thai manuscripts certain aspects of the manuscript copying tradition pose challenges – especially in the context of establishing the provenance of manuscripts whose creators remain mostly anonymous – namely creation date/period of undated manuscripts, possible place of origin or art school, patron and purpose of manuscripts. Jana Igunma asked what the term “copy” means in the Thai cultural context, discussed problems that arise with the copying of colophons and art styles, and considered what constitutes the fine line between copy and forgery in the light of a revival of the tradition of manuscript copying in Thailand in the 21st century.

The final talk in this panel was given by Wahyu Widodo, Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), Leiden University and Fakultas Ilmu Budaya (FIB), Universitas Brawijaya, Malang, on the topic “Whose Manuscripts are These? The Problems of Authorized Custodianships of the Exiled Clerics Manuscripts in the Nineteenth Century of Colonial Java”. In February 1886, accused of raising a rebellion against the Dutch colonial government, Mas Malangjoeda, a charismatic religious leader of the Banyumas-based Akmaliyyah Sufi order in Central Java, together with seventy-two of his loyal followers, was apprehended and sent to imprisonment in Buitenzorg, West Java. Shortly afterwards, he was tried in colonial court under the colony’s criminal law and exiled to Buru Island. To add insult to injury, the manuscripts on Islamic mystical teachings that he had authored were seized and brought to Batavia. With interference from Snouck Hurgronje, these manuscripts are now kept in Leiden University Library, coded as “notes of Malangjoeda” with Cod. Or. 7577-7588. Wahyu Widodo’s presentation aimed to investigate the detailed processes of the manuscripts’ acquisition by asking: Whose sinful hands were used to expropriate these manuscripts from their rightful owner? This aim is further problematized by the fact that the European library has treated these colonial loots with high regard, which suggest legitimate custodianship. Should these manuscripts find their way home through restitution, would they be treated with equally high regard and used to contribute to the knowledge production in the postcolonial country?

After the lunch break, the Annual General Meeting of the SEALG was opened by the group’s secretary, Marije Plomp. Members from France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US attended the meeting. Jana Igunma gave a short summary of the minutes of the last AGM 2019 in Leiden, which are also available on the SEALG website. Treasurer Margaret Nicholson informed the group in advance that, unfortunately, the financial report had to be postponed due to unforeseen circumstances resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. There had been no expenses the previous two years.

The secretary received notifications from the group’s Chair, Doris Jedamski, and Treasurer, Margaret Nicholson, that they both wished to step down from their roles. This year, the election of the committee that had to be postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic finally took place. Christophe Caudron was elected as the new Chair of SEALG, and the attendants of the meeting congratulated him to his new role. Jotika Khur-Yearn agreed to be interim co-treasurer to assist Margaret Nicholson until a new Treasurer can be found.

Jana Igunma presented the usage statistics of the SEALG blog which saw very good results in the previous year 2021, with 10,562 views in total. However, views for the current year were below average due to the fact that only four blog posts had been published so far. Generally, newly published posts, especially those with a topic related to heritage collections, trigger higher viewing numbers also for previously published blog posts. For example, the top five posts with the highest views during the past 12 months (as of 30 June 2022) were: An illuminated Malay Qur’an, A Treatise on Siamese Cats, Two early 19th-century Malay documents, Remembering the Black African Heroes of WWII in Burma, Buddhist manuscript textiles: Southeast Asia. The top ten countries from where the blog was accessed (all time) were the US, Thailand, the UK, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Myanmar, Singapore, Germany, Philippines which shows that the blog is reaching audiences in Southeast Asian countries.

The next points of discussion were General Data Protection Regulations which affect how we publish information on the SEALG website and blog. The challenge is to follow the regulations, while at the same time we have to fulfil the requirements of transparency and accountability in terms of leadership and how SEALG is run. Another issue that was raised was the cost of the SEALG website (domain name and file storage) which have increased recently, so that the group has to look at possible alternatives.

Last but not least, the attendees gave updates from their libraries, including new and ongoing projects, exhibitions, staff changes, significant new acquisitions, funding, fellowships, news from partner organisations in the US, the use of digital platforms etc. Details of the updates are included in the minutes of the meeting which were distributed to the members of SEALG. Various suggestions for locations to hold the AGM in 2023 were received, including Hamburg, Marseille and Venice.

Apart from attending the SEALG panel and AGM, members had the opportunity to visit two exhibitions that took place during the EuroSEAS conference: Remembering 1965 and its Aftermath and Yadeya & the Coup: Taking Action in Myanmar’s Revolution. In addition, there was a rich cultural programme to accompany the conference, including film screeningsconcerts, and book prize award ceremonies.

The SEALG committee, on behalf of the SEALG members, would like to express their gratitude to the organising team of the EuroSEAS Conference 2022 for their dedicated work and the excellent support given to our group, and especially for accommodating the SEALG panel and AGM!

Khmu musical performance from Laos