Revealing Hidden Collections: a Progress Report

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December 2012 Progress report on the Revealing Hidden Collections cataloguing project (also published in the Shan Cultural Association Newsletter vol. 8)

Shan lik loung in The Revealing Hidden Collections Project: an update

The Revealing Hidden Collections Project was started at the Bodleian Library Oxford just over one year ago. Funded by Dhammakaya International Society of the United Kingdom, it is a multi-part project the major component of which is the creation of an online catalogue of Shan lik loung manuscripts to be hosted by the Bodleian Library. The major part of the records that will comprise the catalogue will be of manuscripts recorded by the team in Maehongson headed by Professor Kate Crosby and Dr Jotika Khur Yearn in 2009. It will also include entirely new records of manuscripts currently held by the Bodleian Library itself. We also hope to integrate the catalogue of lik loung manuscripts in the Cambridge Scott Collection compiled in the 1982-3 by Sao Saimong.

Progress over the last year has been mainly technical in nature. Before one can create a catalogue, one needs to decide what information is to be recorded and in what order, how these pieces of information will be stored and related to each other, and how they will be searched, recovered and displayed. There is a surprising amount of technical work to be done.

While computing and the WWW have transformed accessibility to all kinds of information even since Sao Saimong’s day, they have also created their own challenges. One of our greatest concerns has been to ensure the greatest degree of standardisation for our work in order to ensure the maximum accessibility to users when the catalogue is finished. We have been very fortunate that our work has coincided with a move by the Library of Congress to create an authoritative transliteration for the Shan script into the Roman alphabet. Library of Congress transliterations tend to become the international standard and so it was important that we could take advantage of their work as we started the project. The Library of Congress system was finalised by a consortium of scholars, including Dr Khur Yearn, in July of this year. (

A more difficult issue has been to find a usable font. There are quite a few Shan fonts being used nowadays, but as a first principle, and once again to ensure maximum standardisation and accessibility, we need to use a genuine Unicode Shan font. We have been considering Tharlon, Panglong, Yunghkio , Oursunicode, and Shanunicode1. More difficult has been finding a font that ‘renders’ properly on the web. Rendering is the process whereby one’s web browser interprets a font and displays it onscreen. A browser may not show all the letters correctly – or more likely, may not show particular letter combinations properly. The browser is also influenced by the OS (operating system) used by one’s computer. So we can appreciate that there is a complex interaction of different layers of software involved in this process. The best results to date are achieved using Chrome on Windows XP, but ideally we want a Unicode font that will render properly in at least two of the major web browsers (Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox), and it also makes sense that it should work for users of Apple Macintosh computers, not least because many scholars who are interested in Shan literature and culture use them!

It has been a great boon to the project to have the support of Nance Cunningham (Chiang Mai) who has been able to advise the Project on some very technical aspects of fonts. Our search for a fully working Unicode Shan font continues, but in the meantime we are starting to map the combinations of Shan characters one by one to try and identify why some combinations do not render properly.

Finally, to the manuscripts themselves. The IT team at the Bodleian library has developed a special web based cataloguing tool through which the details of each manuscript can be entered into the database that forms the core of the catalogue. This has been undergoing testing over the last few months. This will be used to input all the records made in Maehongson and also new records for the manuscripts held by the Bodleian itself. In the future it will also be used by other projects cataloguing manuscripts from other countries and cultures – so the Shan cataloguing project is also benefiting others through the tools that it creates.

The last few weeks have also seen the start of cataloguing of the Oxford lik loung mss. Dr Khur Yearn and I spent a very useful day in the Bodleian library in October entering records for three rolled book mss (pap kiñ). These were selected from mss that Dr Khur Yearn had reviewed late last year. The purpose for doing this was also about our technical testing. The catalogue system we have set up is very detailed, asking many questions about the form and content of each manuscript, but the records we have so far do not necessarily have all these details! So we were trying to create new records with as much detail as possible in order to fill in every aspect of the catalogue. This will then allow our IT developers to test the catalogue and begin to build the web interface that users of the catalogue will see online.

We focussed on three manuscripts: two of the same text, called Lik Phra Sao Paet and another with the title Dana Buddhawang atthakatha. The Lik Phra Sao Paet are both beautifully illustrated, and the text explains the images which include buddhapāda (the Buddha’s footprint), former births of the Buddha, the Swedagon Pagoda and the Mahāmuni Buddha. Dana Buddhawang atthakatha, a treatise on generosity, is the original text written by the author, but surprisingly even these manuscripts were not sufficient for testing purposes since sadly two of them had also lost their final pages where the colophon would be.

For this reason we will be meeting again to catalogue more manuscripts from Oxford in the weeks to come, and meanwhile the inputting by Dr Khur Yearn of the records already created in Maehongson can proceed. So the project really is at the start of a new stage in which we finally create our database of information about Shan lik loung mss. When that is complete we expect it to contain records of almost 2000 lik loung mss. As we work on this phase the next and final major stage of development will also begin and that is the creation of a working public interface through which anyone with access to the web will be able to search for and read about Shan lik loung manuscripts in the biggest single catalogue of this material in the world.

Dr Andrew Skilton
Project Manager, Revealing Hidden Collections


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