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Buddhist Monasteries on Computer Servers at the Staatsbibliothek


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The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library) is a temple of books with many different chambers. While the Stabi Kulturwerk, recently opened at the Unter den Linden site, is showing treasures from many centuries of paper documents, something very different is happening a few kilometers away in the East Asia Department at Potsdamer Strasse.
There, the CrossAsia team and the IT department of the Staatsbibliothek have spent the last several months creating a more user-friendly and modern form of access to some very special databases. They contain digital copies of Buddhist and secular manuscripts from Laos and northern Thailand. These manuscript texts, inscribed on palm leaves or other materials, had originally been digitized for the library’s specialized information service on Asia. Now, the databases have been updated and are again being presented on the CrossAsia web platform. These databases and associated websites of Laotian and northern Thai manuscripts had first been published in 2012, but it was not possible to migrate the databases to the latest version of the server software. In any case, the search options were not ideal and the general presentation had become a bit outmoded.
Creating the digital copies available today was a long process. The first steps involved two research projects directed by the distinguished southeast Asia expert Harald Hundius and funded in part by the German Foreign Office. In the first project, which lasted from 1983 to 1992, Hundius traveled to Buddhist monasteries in northern Thailand in search of libraries with old manuscripts. From 1993 to 2003, he visited monasteries in Laos. The manuscripts were then cleaned, catalogued and micro-filmed in collaboration with the local community. From 2012 to 2013, they were then digitized.

CrossAsia database of the Staatsbibliothek

CrossAsia offers access to specialized information from and about Asia in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. Through its various activities and competencies, CrossAsia supports research and instruction in the Asia-related disciplines in Germany by supplying digital and printed content. A special lending service is available throughout Europe. The CrossAsia portal was set up by the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin with support from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) as a central point of contact for scholarly information in the Asia-related disciplines.


From 2012 to 2013, they were then digitized. David Wharton, as the project technical director, was responsible for the project management and for inputting the data in the Latin alphabet, including the English version. He worked with Justin Reese and Justin MacCarthy to design the database and the website for the project.

Of course, the 12,000 rolls of microfilm created during the course of the project remained at the Asian monasteries. After all, the creation of a microfilm record represents to some extent part of the responsibilities of these monasteries: in addition to safeguarding manuscripts and creating new palm-leaf manuscripts, they perform the task of copying and thus preserving the old texts. Such copies open up new avenues for research and scholarship, especially when they are compared with other preserved textual sources. One might ask, for example, whether the process of reproducing the text has introduced differences among the various versions.

The task of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin was to support the research, which was a collaborative project involving the National Library of Laos, the University of Passau and, in the case of the northern Thai manuscripts, the Chiang Mai University and the University of Pennsylvania. It hosted and maintained the digital copies and the database with the user interface on its servers. After nearly ten years had passed, the presentation was no longer compatible with the latest software, so everything had to be restructured. Now, however, the system is once more equipped for the future. The descriptive metadata of the 13,002 Laotian and 6,582 northern Thai manuscripts was structured for use in standardized archiving systems and equipped with DOI references. It is now available via the online catalogue system of the Staatsbibliothek (Stabikat). For the presentation layer, IIIF  manifests were created and made accessible through a modern platform at the CrossAsia site with improved search features and category filters.

Buddhistischer Tempel
Collage aus drei Bildern: Links werden Palmbätter von einem buddhistischen Mönch zerteilt, in der Mitte gekocht und rechts aufgehangen.
Collage aus drei Bildern: Links werden Palmbätter von einem buddhistischen Mönch zerteilt, in der Mitte gekocht und rechts aufgehangen.
Collage aus drei Bildern: Links werden Palmbätter von einem buddhistischen Mönch zerteilt, in der Mitte gekocht und rechts aufgehangen.
Ein Mann liest ein Manuskript auf Palmblättern
Mehrere Menschen sitzen auf dem Boden um einen Tisch, auf dem Manuskripte und Schriftrollen liegen.
Gestapelte, in Stoff eingewickelte Schriftrollen

These IIIF manifests are not tied to any particular database system and can be called up – with their full metadata – in other IIIF viewers, too. The migration of the data and the content of the websites required a great deal of effort, but the improved discoverability and usability has now led to as many as 4,000 to 6,000 page views on a single weekend, says Tristan Hinkel. Recently he was told, by a participant at a conference in Paris, that the range of digitized Shan manuscripts available at the site is “outstanding” – so all the work seems to have been worthwhile. Currently, the page views come mostly from southeast Asia and the United States.

The accompanying websites on the “Lao Manuscripts” and the “Northern Thai Manuscripts” were also migrated. Naturally, these are also available in the Lao or Thai languages. The websites provide information on the writing cultures in which the manuscripts were created as well as multimedia content, such as photo galleries of the monasteries, and audio or video files documenting recitations of the manuscripts. They also explain the process of creating a palm-leaf manuscript. The first step is to cut the palm leaves from the trees, after which they are boiled down and dried. The texts are inscribed with a special stylus, and the lettering is then made legible by rubbing ash into it. The individual leaves are then stacked up between two wooden panels, which are in turn wrapped up in special fabrics – and sometimes even sewn in – to make them more durable.

The East Asia Department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, which turns a hundred years old in 2022, seems to have made the leap into the digital age with bravura, despite its age.

And that feat is being celebrated, of course – with a lecture series on topics revolving around its collection and the associated researchers, who study everything from Chinese battle engravings to Javanese manuscripts. And, of course, with an exhibition in the library museum mentioned at the outset of our report: the Stabi Kulturwerk at Unter den Linden.

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