Endangered Archives

EAP104: A pilot project aimed at the preservation of Pa'O religious and literary manuscripts

Mr Christopher Miller, Arizona State University Libraries
2006 award - Pilot project
£9,683 for 2 months

Archival partner: The Pa'O Literary and Cultural Council Committee Library

VIEW FILES FROM THIS PROJECT

Project Overview

The ethnic Pa'O (Tibeto-Burman, Karenic branch) minority group number close to one million persons and currently occupy areas as far north as the southern Shan State and as far south as the northern Mon State in present-day Myanmar. The Pa'O Literary and Cultural Council Committee (PLCCC) Library has begun to collect endangered materials, largely consisting of Theravada Buddhist texts in palm leaf manuscript and parabaik (accordian-folded paper manuscript) form as well as scrolls of both religious and literary texts. All texts are written in either the Pa'O language or in Pali employing a slightly modified Pa'O script. There is no doubt as to the significance of these texts as they represent Pa'O interpretations of the Buddhist canon, an alternative to the Burmese lineage that now essentially dominates religious discourse within Myanmar. Further, they represent a major collection of the Pa'O literary tradition in as much as recent political conditions have effectively quelled Pa'O literature. Sources of these collected Pa'O texts are disparate; some are harvested from homes in rural villages while most have been gifted by local Pa'O monasteries. The conditions of the texts vary but few are in worse condition than the political and physical environments threatening them.

First and foremost, the primary vulnerability is the instability of the political situation in Myanmar . Secondly, while conditions at the PLCCC Library represent an improvement, they are still far from ideal. The PLCCC faces oversight by the Ministry of Information which could choose to confiscate library holdings at any time. Further, the potential for catastrophic disaster (fire, flood, etc.) should be considered high both in eventual likelihood and in materials cost since unique treasures are being concentrated into centralized holdings. In fact, one Pa'O monastery (including significant library holdings) was destroyed by fire in 2004.

For this pilot project, the principal applicant will travel to Myanmar for a period of two months, during which time the Pa'O archival materials described above will be digitally captured. The project is structured around the capture of both the archival material and representative metadata for the purposes of preservation and access.

Project Outcome

This project was designed to be focused in both its execution and duration. Important religious texts and historical documents in the Pa'O language were targeted for digitisation. Four administrative staff members from the PLCCC Library served as expert consultants and project staff for the duration of the project period. The project benefited from their expert guidance, and the manuscripts were arranged and captured based on historical and textual significance.

71 manuscripts, the overwhelming majority of which are in the Pa'O language, have been captured at digital preservation quality through digital photography. Resulting from the project are over 8,600 high-resolution images (21MB/image) of parabaik (accordion folded paper manuscripts), bound scrolls, and a palm leaf manuscript. The scope of the captured resources is particularly strong in Pa'O interpretations of the Theravada Buddhist canon. Additionally, Pa'O historical and cultural texts were digitized; particularly interesting are manuscripts that document Pa'O dynasties and claims on important historical sites in contemporary Myanmar. The aggregated documents in this collection easily constitute the largest and most comprehensive Pa'O literary and religious studies resource outside of Pa'O regions in Myanmar and Thailand.

In addition to the digital preservation of these endangered texts, the project itself raised a new awareness of these important resources locally. The PLCCC Library has taken steps to better organise and re-house these materials in improved conditions. Further, the project strengthened the relationship between the PLCCC Library and local Pa'O monasteries, encouraging more projects such as a burgeoning Pa'O-Burmese dictionary and more manuscript conservation efforts.

View the digital collection on the Southeast Asia Digital Library website

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP104/1 Selection of records from the Pa'O Literary and Cultural Council Committee Library Manuscript Archive [1895-1986, 1257-1348 Burmese Era]

The catalogue is available here.