THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

15 February 2019

Introducing Sam van Schaik, the new head of the Endangered Archives Programme

With EAP entering its second phase last year, a new role was created for a head of the Programme. I began in this exciting new role earlier this month, and I thought it was about time to introduce myself here on the EAP website!

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I have moved to the Endangered Archives Programme from a different, but not entirely dissimilar project at the British Library: the International Dunhuang Project (IDP). I started here in 1999, when I was in the final year of my doctorate on Tibetan Buddhism, working on a cataloguing and digitising over two thousand Tibetan wooden slips from the Silk Road at the same time as finishing my dissertation. A couple of years later, with that done and the dissertation finally finished, I embarked on a series of research projects, on Tibetan tantric Buddhism, the palaeography of Tibetan manuscripts, and the lost tradition of Tibetan Zen. Most recently before I moved to EAP, I was a principal investigator on a major synergy project funded by the European Research Council, 'Beyond Boundaries: Religion, Region, Language and the State', tracing the impacts of Indic culture on Southeast Asia, Central Asia and China in the first millennium CE.

In IDP we worked towards digitally reuniting the Silk Road collections of the British Library with those in other museums and libraries across the world. The challenge was for institutions in Europe, Russia, China and Japan to work together, harmonising their digitisation and cataloguing work so that these dispersed collections could be accessed from a single website. And thanks to dedicated curators, researchers and technicians in all of these places, it worked. The website (idp.bl.uk) gives access to manuscripts, paintings and other artefacts from across the world. This global partnership, one of the most successful and long running international digital collaborations, continues today.

These projects have given me fantastic opportunities to work with the manuscript collections at the British Library as a curator and researcher, to travel to other museums and libraries in Europe, Asia and Russia, and to write and publish on Buddhism, the history of the Silk Road and the study of manuscripts. Being able to work with these incredible collections and their dedicated curators has always been a privilege. In recent years I've also written some books for a wider audience, including Tibet: A History (2012) and The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism (2016).

Moving to the Endangered Archives Programme, some things are familiar, most of all the commitment to preserving and making available global sources of culture and learning. Both Arcadia and the British Library are committed to open access and the widest possible dissemination of the results of EAP projects. This means making everything not only available, but easily discoverable in a variety of ways, for different kinds of of people with different needs and interests. With over 350 projects in 90 countries, EAP is a vast network, which is complemented by the work of other Arcadia-funded programmes, including the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (SOAS), the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (British Museum), and Documenting Global Voices (UCLA).

Over the years I've heard from recipients of EAP grants about how valuable the support of EAP had been, and how pleasant they found working with the Programme. Now, as the detailed applications for round 15 of EAP are arriving, I am seeing the process from the other side, and I am even more impressed by the EAP team at the British Library and looking forward to working with them as the adventure continues.

Blog written by Sam van Schaik