Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

6 posts from January 2017

30 January 2017

Kaleidoscopic stories: first impressions from our new Grants Portfolio Manager

This week's blog is written by Ruth Hansford who has recently joined the Endangered Archives Programme as our new Grants Portfolio Manager. In this blog she shares her first impressions of her new role.

The world of archives has not always seemed like a high-pressure environment, but rescuing endangered archives does acquire a sense of urgency when you read the stories of those who are trying to ensure they survive. I have spent my first few weeks in the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) reading applications for the next round of grants to digitise and find a home for at-risk archives from all over the world.

My arrival at the BL coincided with the press coverage of the Louvre’s secure storage facility being extended with the potential to accommodate works of art threatened by conflicts.

At the Endangered Archives Programme we’re talking about other threats too: the more localised conflicts around the ownership of a collection – or its opposite: neglect or indifference from the custodians.

This year we are up to Round 13 of the Arcadia-funded Endangered Archives Programme and we have seen the highest number of preliminary applications to date: 112 in total. Many of the applicants are dealing with the logistics of digitising material, clearing the rights so that it can be put online, and in some cases ensuring the original material will be appropriately housed. Some need finance for digitisation equipment, while others may need support for negotiating access with archive owners who are worried that the process of creating a photographic record may damage the material or devalue it in other ways.

I have been captivated by stories from all over the world. First, the stories of how and why these archives are at risk: tales of political or cultural figures who might be forgotten in the rush towards cultural homogenisation; tales of neglect when the prevailing winds change and the archivist’s job disappears; tales of leaking roofs; of rodents or termites chewing their way through unique documents, of photographic negatives disappearing before our very eyes, and of acidic paper eating itself.


Every application tells a different story, with its local dilemmas around how to get hold of the kit, how to cope with power cuts, and its cast of monks, heirs, civil servants. In the last few weeks, reading the applications has taken me to the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Steppes of Central Asia, and places that are closer to home but seem very far away.

Then there are the human stories revealed by the material itself: records from the churches, orphanages, the courts, that open a window on to civilian life all over the world. Not only can we marvel at the spectacularly elaborate bureaucracies that grew up at a certain period, we can also contemplate the lives of the thousands of bureaucrats who made it all work, as well as the beneficiaries of the services, the people in the dock or the witness box.

Once online these stories will be available for anyone to use for research or for inspiration, or simply to enjoy.

Ruth Hansford, EAP Grants Portfolio Manager

27 January 2017

Good Fortune for the Year of the Rooster

As it is Chinese New Year this weekend, I thought I would browse through the EAP collections to see whether I could find any appropriate images of roosters. I came across this wonderful manuscript that was digitised as part of EAP217, which focusses on Yi manuscripts from Yunnan in southwest China.

The Yi archives cover a wide range of topics including calendars, epics, history, medicine, philosophy, rituals, geography, literature and music. The information written in the Yi language is not available in either Chinese or any other script.

Most of the Yi archival material digitised as part of EAP271 is not illustrated. However, one major feature of manuscripts written in the south dialect is that they have unique and beautiful illustrations painted in bright mineral pigments.

This particular manuscript is from southern Yunnan and is written in the Xinping dialect. It dates from the 19th century and is a sutra predicting fortunate or ill-fated dates and events. The illustrations are delightful and it seemed very appropriate to share them, on what I hope will be, a very auspicious year.

Fragile manuscript with naive depictions of household with farmyard animals and a tiger.EAP217/1/5: Zhan bu yu ce shu [19th century]

Similar illustration showing people, farmyard animals and a rooster. Image 5

Ancestral shrine with a dragon and roosters.


26 January 2017

New Horizons of Digitisation in Serbia

The conference New Horizons of Digitisation in Serbia was held at the University Library ‘Svetozar Marković’ in Belgrade on 23 January 2017. It was organised as the final activity for EAP833 the project that digitised the Lazic family collection.

The conference theme covered a range of topics ranging from new digitisation trends to examples of best practice in national and international projects. The presenters were renowned university professors, librarians and digitisation experts from different types of libraries in Serbia. The conference was moderated by Dr Vasilije Milnović, project coordinator. The audience turnout was beyond expectations and there was great interest in the topics presented.

Audience at the conference

Professor Dr Aleksandar Jerkov, CEO of the University Library, opened the conference and keynote speeches were delivered by Ministry of Culture and Information representatives Ms Ivana Dedić and Mr Dejan Masliković.

There were two plenary sessions. The first included the presentations on: “Digitisation: Past, Present and Future” by Prof Dr Cvetana Krstev (University of Belgrade), “Uncovering the Digital Document” by Prof Dr Ranka Stanković (University of Belgrade), “Standardisation of Digitisation of Library Materials in Serbia: Possibilities, Needs and Practical Examples” by Dr Bogdan Trifunović, (President of the Serbian Library Association), “Digital Humanities: Potential Future for Libraries in Serbia” by Tamara Butigan Vučaj (National Library of Serbia) and “Collections from the Private Archive of the Lazic Family” by Gorica Lazić. The focus of the morning session was on digitisation and the importance of metadata.

The second plenary session covered: “Digital Archives of the Institute for Balkan Studies of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts” by Dr Bilјana Sikimić and Bratislav Vukojčić, “Digitisation of Manuscripts and Dialectal Materials at the Institute for the Serbian Language, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts” by Dr Snežana Petrović and Toma Tasovac, “Using Open Source Digitisation Software at the Public Library ‘Milutin Bojić’” by Jovica Krtinić and Andrija Sagić, and finally “Digitisation at the University Library ‘Svetozar Marković’” – Experience and Perspectives held by Dr Adam Sofronijević, Deputy Head at the University Library. The last presentation also focused the results for EAP833.

The conference was rounded off with a lively discussion resulting in useful suggestions and interesting observations. It was pointed out that best practice examples were both technically and scientifically beneficial. Finally, some of the new partnerships between the representatives of the participating institutions are on the horizon so it was clearly a fruitful, productive and a very enjoyable conference.

All presentations will be available by the end of January on the Svetozar Markovic website and the material digitised as part of EAP833 will be online very shortly.

20 January 2017

A Royal Proposal of Marriage

Now well into our digitisation workflow process, team EAP880 all took some time out mesmerised by the contents of one particular file…

Files from the archive.

Caught at the crossworlds of British India, Tibetan Buddhism, and Burmese political transitions, this file captures the furtive and subsequent official engagement between a Himalayan prince, HRH Sidkeong Tulku of Sikkim (1879-1914) and a Burmese princess-in-exile, HRH Teik-Tin Ma Lat (b.1894).

Through first-hand accounts, it provides a rare lens into the emerging internationalism of the era touching upon Britain, Ladakh, India, Sikkim, Tibet, Burma, and Japan. It takes us through the couple’s first meeting, their love letters, their differences, and their wedding plans, and culminates with the Prince’s untimely and mysterious death—three months before his wedding—at age 35.

Photograph of the young prince.
Photo: Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal © Sikkim Palace Archive / Project Denjong

Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal was never destined for the throne: As the second son of Sikkim’s 9th Chogyal (King) Thutob Namgyal and a recognised reincarnate lama he had taken monastic vows of celibacy and was beginning his Buddhist studies in the monastery.


Photograph of the Chogyal with two advisers.
Photo: 9th Sikkim Chogyal (King) Thutob Namgyal © Sikkim Palace Archive / Project Denjong

However, his father’s reign had been characterised by waves of aggression from both modern day Nepal and Bhutan, and—in a regional theatre dominated by the Great Game—increasing British interventionism as the latter strove to counter a perceived Russian influence in Lhasa. It was through the Sikkim Himalayas that they saw their greatest chances of success.

Increasingly wary of the scope of Tibetan belligerence, the British sought to exert influence over Sikkim’s politics: On refusing to recall Crown Prince Tsodag from their summer estates in Chumbi (Tibet), the British held the Chogyal and his family, for two years near Darjeeling – ironically, a tract of land leased to them by the 8th Chogyal of Sikkim.

While in captivity, the Chogyal—out of mistrust of British intention and fear for his son’s life—maintained his refusal to order the Crown Prince’s return. He was finally released when the Viceroy of India, authorised the removal of the Crown Prince from the line of the succession, and investing Prince Sidkeong Tulku as heir apparent. And so, began the generous grooming of Prince Sidkeong Tulku Namgyal.


Photograph of Lt. O’ConnorPhoto: Lt. O’Connor © Sikkim Palace Archive / Project Denjong

After a brief stint with Sarat Chandra Das and at St. Paul’s School (Darjeeling), the prince went to Pembroke College, Oxford University (1906-08), during which time he was under the care of Lt. Col. O’Connor with whom he became quite close, and John Claude White (Political Officer, Sikkim).

Fluent in Chinese, Hindi, English, Lepcha, Nepali, and Tibetan, the Prince visited New York, European capitals, and Burma keeping a handwritten, large-format diary—in English—of his travels, replete with photos, mementos, invitations, and playbills. He returned to Sikkim progressive and full of energy, advocating for judicial, land, and monastic reforms.

Handwritten letter.
Photo: Letter from Prince Sidkeong Tulku to John Claude White (5th November, 1906)

By 1906, Sikkim’s new Crown Prince decided he should soon marry and began a search for a well-educated woman with a compatible fluency in English, and a shared Buddhist heritage.

Though the Government of India had no objection, the Chogyal of Sikkim, still raw from the treatment he had been subjected to and perhaps moved deeply by his devotion to the Buddha dharma, held the opinion that the Prince—an incarnation of a lama—should refrain from both marriage and activity in worldly affairs, in favour of spiritual practice. The British, in contrast, were only too eager to help the Crown Prince!

second part of handwritten letter.Photo: Letter from Prince Sidkeong Tulku to Curzon Wylie (13th June, 1908)

Prince Sidkeong Tulku—in admiration of Japanese culture—wished to marry a Japanese. During a visit to Japan, the British Ambassador bore the responsibility of inviting Sidkeong to various dances and dinners, but with no obvious match made, the Government of India decided that a Burmese would be preferable, as unlike Japan, Tibet, or Siam, Burma was under British rule.

Pages from a typewritten letter.Photo: Letter from W.H. Hodges to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (9th October, 1910)

It then fell on the Government of Burma to provide a list of suitable ladies, and the respective governments of Bombay and the United Provinces, to provide lists of Burma’s royal lineage ladies whose families were living in exile in India. These were  presented to the Prince in late 1910.

The Prince of Limbin (Limbin Mintha), a grandson of King Tharrawaddy, and his daughters were living in Allahabad, which, in December 1910 was (rather conveniently) preparing to host the the three-month Allahabad Exhibition. This provided the perfect opportunity for Prince Sidkeong to meet Limbin Mintha’s family, while arousing minimal suspician at home.

Accompanied by Kazi Gyaltsen to Allahabad, Prince Sidkeong hosted a dinner party for Limbin Mintha and gifted Princess Ma Lat an image of the Buddha and a basket of Sikkim oranges. After a few meetings, Charles Bell (Political Officer, Sikkim) noted that the prince had not made a decision and that he had instead requested enquiries to be made for potential brides in Siam, Kashmir, Ladakh, and again in Japan.

However, finding a woman in Siam educated in English proved too difficult, and though one Shimchung Gialmon Lhadun of Mathu (Ladakh) was suggested, the Prince disapproved of her illiteracy (despite remarking on her physical beauty).

Again, in 1911, he wrote to Colin J. Davidson (Assistant Secretary, British Embassy in Japan) requesting his help in finding a suitable bride, however, the Anglo-Japan relation was deteriorating and Davidson advised against this, citing in addition that, “The knowledge they (Japanese ladies) acquire is very meagre and as a rule almost useless for practical purposes…”

So it was in 1912 that Prince Sidkeong chose to marry Princess Ma Lat, whose family by this time had returned to Rangoon, despite the fact that on principle, his father—the Chogyal—still opposed any marriage just as he had in 1908.

Two letters.
Photo: Letter from W.H. Hodges to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (30th June, 1913); and Letter from Prince Sidkeong Tulku to Charles Bell (28th July, 1913).

Instead, the Government of India assumed the role of a negotiater securing the consent of Limbin Mintha for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Prince Sidkeong advised that the Chogyal should not yet be informed due to the seriousness of his father’s illness. Yet in the meantime, the Prince made a visit to Rangoon, to fulfill the dual purpose of both pilgrimage and proposal.

09_DSC00605Photo: Letter from Princess Ma Lat to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (22nd November, 1913)

The initial 1913 Rangoon wedding date was repeatedly postponed by the Prince whose concern for his father’s deteriorating health became his priority. However, over the course of a regular correspondence between the engaged, the Prince and Princess exchanged letters discussing designs of the wedding dress and rings, as well as expenses.

Files from the archive.
Photo: Sub-folder of astrological calculations for the marriage of Prince Sidkeong Tulku of Sikkim with Princess Ma Lat of Limbin (Burma)

In June 1914—as per Sikkimese custom—an astrologer was consulted on whose advice the Prince set the wedding for 24th January 1915 in Rangoon. Meanwhile, the Princess Ma Lat had requested Sidkeong to send her a Sikkimese ayah in order to help familiarise herself with Sikkimese culture. (The Prince advises Ma Lat to read more books instead!)

On 10th February, 1914, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal passed away. The prince wrote to his fiancée explaining the Sikkimese custom of one year’s mourning, which was especially important given there was some disapproval of the match in Sikkim. Moreover, he notes that Britain was now at war with Germany and under such situations, officials were busy with war efforts.

Handwritten letter.
Photo: Letter from Princess Ma Lat to Prince Sidkeong Tulku (26th November, 2014)

This was likely the last letter the Prince received from his fiancée for after only nine months on the throne, in December 1914, Prince Sidkeong Tulku died in what the British call “mysterious circumstances” while ill in bed, just one month before his marriage.


Written by Pema Abrahams, grant holder for EAP880

18 January 2017

Mastering the manuscripts from Michoacán, Mexico

A contingent from LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections visited the capital city of Morelia in Michoacán, Mexico, last November to begin work on EAP931. The grant will fund the digitisation and online publication of 192 deed books, or libros de hijuelas—handwritten records documenting the privatisation of indigenous lands by the state in nineteenth-century Michoacán.

Group photograph taken in an office by the digitisation set up.Photo: Visit to Michoacán. L-R, back row: Rocío Verduzco Sandoval, Matthew Butler, Yolanda Castillo Franco, Marlen Alvarado González, Theresa Polk; front row: Cecilia Bautista García, Sujey Miranda Marín, David Bliss

The project reflects LLILAS Benson’s commitment to post-custodial archival preservation: collaborating with archival partners in Latin America in the use of digital techniques to give valuable documents a new lease of life beyond the physical confines of the archive.

During the visit, four newly hired staff members—all of whom hold degrees in history from the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás Hidalgo, aka La Nicolaita—were trained to digitise the documents and record metadata, a project that is expected to take two years. The hijuelas are in fragile condition, having been stored in an under-resourced facility, putting their survival at risk and making this project all the more timely. The digitisation will be carried out in Morelia’s Palacio de Gobierno, with collaboration by Michoacán’s Secretaría General de Gobierno (the Interior Ministry).

The group looking at a computer screen.Workshop in process

Professor Matthew Butler of the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin was joined by two representatives from the university’s Benson Latin American Collection —Theresa Polk, post-custodial archivist, and David Bliss, graduate research assistant in post-custodial and digital initiatives. Butler is affiliated faculty at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), which is administering the grant in partnership with the Benson Collection. Polk and Bliss provided training in digitisation and the collection of metadata to the four history graduates during a week-long workshop.

The team based in Mexico is made up of two of Butler’s colleagues—Antonio Escobar Ohmstede of CIESAS and Cecilia Bautista of La Nicolaita—co-direct the project, providing scholarly partnership and oversight. The four history graduates from La Nicolaita will work for two years to digitise the archive, including preparation of metadata. Their involvement is made possible by an agreement between LLILAS Benson and its Mexican partner institution, CIESAS, the Center for the Advanced Study of Social Anthropology.

Two women looking at a computer screen.

Butler says the contents of the deed books will be useful in studying agrarian liberalism in Mexico, as well as indigenous people’s roles as authors and actors in their own history. “For a long time, historians portrayed indigenous people as passive and hapless victims of liberal land laws, which were seen as the main historical driver of the 1910 revolution and the moral justification for the agrarian reforms carried out by the state in Mexico in the 1930s. The hijuelas books should give us a much clearer idea of how indigenous people themselves instrumentalised liberal laws in order to redefine and defend their pueblos. We should be able to see a more complex history of indigenous adaptation and survival occurring, and also to chart that history on a much bigger scale than anyone has been able to do before.”

The hijuelas books contain information relating to five different ethnic groups from the area—Purépecha, Otomí, Mazahua, Matlatzinca, and Nahua—and are unique in that they offer the only complete statewide documentation of land privatisation anywhere in Mexico. They also offer a glimpse into how their creators regarded the liberal project.

“In rescuing the libros de hijuelas, we preserve an important part of the history of the indigenous groups who created them,” says Escobar Ohmstede of CIESAS. “Yet we also show how these people went about building and reconstructing their territoriality during Mexico’s nineteenth-century agrarian reform, whether by asserting their colonial titles or by arguing that lands lost previously should now be returned to them. Because the documents contain maps as well as detailed descriptions of community landholdings, we can also reconstruct, as we would a jigsaw puzzle, the lands on which the hijuelas’ creators lived and the ways that they perceived them. For example, the documents offer a window onto how indigenous people prioritised, allocated, and used natural resources. Even as they agreed to divide and privatize their lands during the second half of the nineteenth century, we can see that they used the division to claim ownership of ecological niches with the aim of using those natural resources to the maximum extent, even as these lands became the object of competitive claims by other social actors.”

A scholarly conference and book venture are planned at the end of the digitisation project and of course the digitised material will be made available on the EAP website.


Written by Susanna Sharpe of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections

05 January 2017

New Year Greetings from EAP

When the EAP team returned to work after the closure of the office for the holiday period, we realised that for some areas of the world Christmas has yet to come. So, we thought it would be fitting to post some illustrations from manuscripts that have been digitised as part of the Endangered Archives Programme.

For those of you who will be celebrating Christmas this week – we hope you have a very special time and of course we would like to wish everyone a very joyous 2017.

Ethiopic illustration depicting Madonna and Child.  EAP526/1/7

Ethiopic illustration depicting Madonna and Child  EAP526/1/41

  Ethiopic illustration depicting Madonna and Child  EAP704/1/43

Ethiopic illustration depicting the Three Wise Men.  EAP704/1/43

Ethiopic illustration depicting the Three Wise Men.  EAP704/2/1

The images have come from two projects: EAP526, which digitised the monastic archive at May Wäyni and EAP704, which digitised the monastic archives of Marawe Krestos and Däbrä Abbay, Ethiopia