by Tom Parisi
Over the last four years, an international collaboration led by NIU Libraries has made rare materials related to the history, scholarship and culture of Southeast Asia available online.
Now the Southeast Asia Digital Library, as it is known, is adding a virtual wing or two. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has tapped NIU Libraries to lead a major expansion of the Web site.
Ten additional constituent digitization projects and new features that allow scholars in Southeast Asia to remotely upload library materials to the Web site will ensure that the Southeast Asia Digital Library continues to grow into a major online resource for the field of Southeast Asia Studies.
DOE is providing a $190,000 grant for the first year of the project. It is expected to be funded at similar levels in each of the three following years as well, said Drew VandeCreek, who heads NIU Libraries’ digitization unit and is co-director of the Southeast Asia Digital Library project.
NIU is partnering on the digitization effort with Hawaii, Yale, Cornell and Arizona State universities, along with five institutions and many independent scholars based in Southeast Asia.
“The online library was originally created using resources primarily from Southeast Asia,” VandeCreek said. “The granting agency wanted to make sure the project would continue to grow and thrive. The new round of funding will make it easier for people in Southeast Asia to contribute to the digital collections.”
The grant is being distributed through the DOE’s Technological Innovation and Cooperation for Foreign Information Access Program. It supports projects that use innovative electronic technologies to collect information from foreign sources.
“The U.S. government has a vested interest in cultivating speakers of Southeast Asian languages and experts in the region’s culture and history,” VandeCreek said. “We digitize manuscripts, books, images and multimedia so that students can study the region and learn its languages by listening to native speakers.”
Online digitization projects reach audiences inside and outside of academe. In its simplest terms, the digitization process requires scanning or photographing artifacts and research documents. Special software is used to put text into searchable word-processing files and to catalogue materials, which are then loaded into databases on the Web site.
“The most exciting aspect is that we will be able to provide online access for free to many rare materials that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible unless you traveled to Southeast Asia,” said Hao Phan, curator of NIU Libraries’ Southeast Asia Collection and co-director with VandeCreek on the digital library expansion project.
The Southeast Asia Digital Library already boasts such resources as video of a contemporary Indonesian television show, century-old Vietnamese manuscripts, palm-leaf manuscripts from Thailand and video interviews with former political prisoners in East Timor.
In coming years, the online library hopes to add much more, including Lao and Thai Buddhist artworks, rare Islamic manuscripts from Indonesia, rare books from Malaysia and interviews with artists and art-related materials from Vietnam.
NIU is nationally recognized for its expertise in the languages, literatures, anthropology, geography, history, religion, music, art history and governments of Southeast Asia.
The NIU Center for Southeast Asian Studies is one of only nine federally designated national resource centers for study of the region. Center Director James Collins is serving as a consultant on the digitization project, along with NIU Anthropology Chair Judy Ledgerwood, Professor of Anthropology Susan Russell and Professor of Art Catherine Raymond, director of the NIU Center for Burma Studies.