22 February 2022
Technical challenges of digitising Batak manuscripts
The main aim of manuscript digitisation programmes in the British Library is to enable books and documents to be viewed and read online, freely and fully, from anywhere in the world, without the need to travel long distances to the Library’s reading rooms in London to consult the original objects. Photography for digitisation aims to capture the full object, from cover to cover, including blank pages, so that viewers can be confident that they are seeing every detail that would be visible if they were to consult the manuscript ‘in real life’. In many cases, the very high resolution images and zoom facilities of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal enable aspects of the manuscript to be studied even more easily than through a personal inspection. What digitisation cannot capture though, of course, is the materiality of the manuscript: what it feels like to touch, what it weighs, what it smells like, and how it opens and closes. Such material features are particularly important in the case of Batak manuscripts, which are all written on organic materials which have not been highly processed.
Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761
The British Library’s collection of 37 Batak manuscripts has just been fully digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The collection mostly comprises pustaha, manuscript books written on long strips of treebark that are folded concertina-style, and often provided with two wooden covers. Batak script is read from left to right, and the text is written in lines parallel to the folds of the book. In practice, the Batak scribes actually wrote the text – whether on treebark books, or pieces of bamboo – vertically from bottom to top (Kozok 2009: 35), and this probably explains why most illustrations in pustaha are oriented at 90 degrees to the direction of writing, as shown below. Therefore, reading an illustrated Batak manuscript ‘in real life’ involves rotating the book as necessary, an experience which is not possible to replicate in the current British Library Digitised Manuscripts portal. However, over the next few years, all the digitised Batak manuscripts will be migrated to the British Library's more flexible Universal Viewer, which allows rotation of images and uses the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Format) standard. This allows users to choose different viewers and tools to interact with cultural heritage content, and enables the comparison and annotation of digital content.
Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v
In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r
Some older pustaha which have previously been damaged may have been repaired by being sewn together. Sometimes these older sections may be missing parts of the text, and even be orientated in the opposite direction (upside down) to the rest of the manuscript. When reading a Batak pustaha ‘in real life’, it is easy to work out what has happened. But when reading a digitised manuscript online, when a page with text in one direction is followed by a page with a different text, presented upside down – as in Or 12587, shown below – it is easy to assume that there has been a mistake in processing the digital images. Therefore in photographing the Batak manuscripts, care was taken to ensure that a few lines of the preceding or following page are always visible in each image, so that anyone reading the digital manuscripts can be reassured that they are really seeing the manuscript as it is.
Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r.
The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down. However, checking carefully the two lines of text visible at the top from the preceding page, with a portion of the drawing of a square, confirms that this is indeed the following page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 45r.
In published catalogues of Batak manuscripts, scholarly convention generally refers to the two sides of a pustaha as sides A and B, with the pages numbered from ‘1’ on each side (Putten and Zollo 2020: 90). However, in digitising Batak manuscripts at the British Library, we were severely constrained by the strict filenaming conventions associated with the Digitised Manuscripts portal. This portal had been originally developed about ten years ago for a Greek manuscripts project, and was therefore predicated upon the norm of manuscripts in codex form, with folios or leaves each consisting of two pages, the first (recto) and second (verso). While the portal had successfully been adapted for Malay manuscripts in Arabic script, reading from right to left, Batak pustaha in concertina form brought their own challenges, for we were not able to assign filenames of the form ‘A 1’ or ‘B 2’ for Batak manuscripts. As our priority was to ensure that the images were presented on the portal in the correct order, replicating the actual manuscript, we devised a system whereby all the pages of side A were assigned ‘recto’ image numbers, while side B images were numbered in the same consecutive sequence, but as ‘verso’ images. Thus a pustaha with 34 leaves would have images on side A numbered f001r to f034r to represent pages A 1 to A 34, while after turning the manuscript over onto side B, pages B 1 to 34 would be numbered f035v to f068v. This unconventional ‘manipulation’ of the existing filenaming system has allowed us to present the images in the correct order, but it means the filenames of each image are not easily correlated with the contents lists in catalogue information.
The beginning of a text on protective magic, pagar balik hontas na bolon, described in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 14) as beginning on page B 1, but with the image filename f033v. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 33v
Some Batak bamboo manuscripts presented different problems. Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder inscribed with a Batak syllabary and a few other writing exercises, which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897. As Ludovic Crawfurd was an avid collector of Batak manuscripts, especially bamboo ones, this one was probably given away because it was already broken into two at the time. On both sides of the cylinder, the split has occurred across a line of text, but the two pieces of bamboo have warped so much over time that it was not easy to fit them back together for digitisation. Indeed, it took the combined efforts of the digitisation team (pictured below) to help to prop the two pieces together, and rotate them slowly, to allow the text to be read.
Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together and held in place so that the letters along the break could be read. British Library, Or 5309
The team effort to position the two parts of Batak manuscript Or 5309 together for photography: from left to right, conservator Samantha Cawson, curator Annabel Gallop, photographer Elizabeth Hunter, and digitisation officer Adelaida Ngowi. Photograph by Eugenio Falcioni, 20 January 2022.
This blog post has tried to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some the technical problems we had to wrestle with in the course of digitising the collection of Batak manuscripts in the British Library. Every single manuscript was checked before digitisation by Conservator Samantha Cawson, who cleaned the manuscripts and made some essential repairs. Next the manuscripts were all photographed by Senior Imaging Technician Elizabeth Hunter, who had to learn a little about Batak script so she could be sure to position the manuscripts correctly. The digital images were then all checked by Digitisation Officer Adelaida Ngowi, who looked at image quality, focus and orientation, and ensured that the filenames correlated with the intended sequencing of images. As curator, I was responsible for creating online catalogue records for all the manuscripts, based on the published catalogue (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014), and for checking all the manuscripts as they were published online. We are also very grateful to our colleagues at Hamburg University and elsewhere who enabled this project, in particular Michael Friedrich, Arlo Griffiths, Jan van der Putten, Roberta Zollo, Christina Kaminski and Karsten Helmholz. We hope you will enjoy browsing through the digitised manuscripts, which are all listed here.
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]