The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663.
Cloister at Vat Sisaket, Vientiane. From Siam and Laos as seen by our American missionaries (Philadelphia: 1884), p. 277. British Library, 4767.bb.8
The collection of printed material in Lao language contains over 300 monographs, most of them dating from 1950 onwards. The highlights of the collection, however, are three of the first books printed in the Lao language: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in Tham (Dhamma) script, printed in 1896 by the Chiang Mai Presbyterian Mission Press (ORB.30/5145); the Évangile selon Saint Jean en laocien (Khampasœ̄t tām lư̄ang hǣng Yōhan) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Paris in 1906 (11103.b.19); and the Évangile de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ selon Matthieu en laotien (Nangsư̄ khlittikhun pasœ̄t khǭng phra Yēsū Khlit tām thān Matthāi) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Song Khône, Laos, in 1916 (Siam.251). The latter appears to be the first book printed in Lao language in Laos. Book printing was introduced in Laos – at the time part of the Indochinese Union – through the efforts of missionaries with the Swiss Mission Evangélique in Song Khône, southern Laos. Together with a Buddhist monk Gabriel Contesse translated parts of the New Testament into Lao, of which the first part was printed in Lāo buhān script at a printing house in Paris in 1906. The second part was printed only after Contesse’s death in 1909 at the same printer. Finally, a press started printing material in Lāo buhān typeface at the mission in Song Khône thanks to the efforts of missionaries Fritz Audétat and Fritz Widmer.
First page of the Lao translation of the Gospel of John, printed in 1906. British Library, 11103.b.19
The heart of the Lao book collection is formed by publications of Maha Sila Viravong’s transliterations of literary, linguistic, Buddhist and historical texts from palm leaf manuscripts, for example rare first editions of Nangsư̄ thēt rư̄ang Vētsandon Sādok (Vessantara Jātaka, 1961, YP.2006.b.518), Phongsāwadān Lāo (Lao chronicles, 1957, YP.2005.a.6082), and Nithān Nāng Tantai (Lao version of the Panchatantra, 1957-66, 14304.b.23).
Other rare printed works include original issues as well as microfilmed copies of historical Lao newspapers and journals, like for example Pituphūm (O.P.984, holdings 1969-71), Sīang pasāson (Or.Mic.7339, holdings 1975), Khāophāp pacham sapdā (ORB.40/986, holdings 1968), Sāt Lāo (Or.Mic.11526, holdings 1971-75), and Vannakhadisān (ORB.30/6967, holdings 1953-58).
The only two issues of Khāophāp pacham sapdā, dated 12 and 26 Feburary 1968, held at the British Library. ORB.40/986
The Library also holds approximately 2000 books about Laos and Lao culture in Western languages, as well as in Thai and Vietnamese languages. These include some rare first editions, like for example de Gerini’s original description of Laos and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia Delle missioni dei' padri della Compagnia di Gesù nella Provincia del Giappone, e particolarmente di quella di Tumkino (printed in 1663 in Rome, V 5052), Vremde geschiedenissen in de koninckrijcken Cambodia en Louwen-Lant, in Oost-Indien zedert den Iare 1635 tot den Iare 1644 aldaer voor-gevallen. Mitsgaders de Reyse der Nederlanders van Cambodia de Louse Revier op, na Wincjan (printed in Haarlem in 1669, 566.f.20.(6.)), Henri Mouhot’s Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (published in London in 1864, 010056.f.8), and Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (published in Philadelphia in 1884, 4767.bb.8). Lao printed books and periodicals have now been fully catalogued and are searchable in the Library’s online catalogue.
Map of mainland Southeast Asia, from Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884). British Library, 4767.bb.8.
In addition to printed material, the Library holds 85 manuscripts which are either in Lao language or in Pali, but written in Tham script or in Lāo buhān script. The collection comprises literary, historical and Buddhist texts, most of them written on palm leaves. A small number, however, are in form of folding books made from khoi paper or from lacquered cotton. Among the highlights are a rare Lao dictionary, which is a folding book in three volumes acquired in 1839 (Add.11624), Henri Mouhot's Alphabets and inscriptions (Or.4736), and a Kammavāca manuscript in Tham (Dhamma) script dated 1805 AD (Or.11797).
Kammavāca palm leaf manuscript from Laos. It has wooden covers which are decorated with lacquer, gilt and mirror glass inlay. British Library, Or.11797
Included in the manuscripts collection are also some wooden manuscript boxes decorated with lacquer and gold, as well as a few hand-woven manuscript wrappers made from silk or cotton. Other minor languages covered in the Lao manuscripts collection include some Tai Lue and Tai Khoen manuscripts. All items in the Library’s Lao manuscripts collection have been catalogued in the online catalogue, Search our Catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts, SoCAM.
Moving image and sound recordings
In addition to printed material and manuscripts, a collection of moving image and sound recordings from Laos is available in the Library’s Sound Archive. These include recordings of traditional Lao music, natural sound recordings, as well as a small number of documentaries and feature films. Among these are numerous unpublished recordings of remote populations of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand by Tom Vater. Access to the Sound Archive is through the online catalogue Cadensa.
The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme supports the preservation and digitisation of archival and manuscript collections in their country of origin. The Archive of Buddhist Photographs from Luang Prabang has been digitised in full through this Programme and is available here.
Postcard of a cattle caravan in Laos, printed around 1910. From an Album of postcards from Siam, Burma, Indochina. British Library, ORB.30/6309
Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian